SEPTEMBER 12, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 32
Imagine with us for a moment: you are the trustee of an irrevocable trust created by a now-deceased woman for the benefit of her daughter. The trust says that her daughter is to receive all the income generated by the trust. You are also given the discretion to give the daughter some of the trust’s principal if she needs it. When the daughter dies, whatever is left in the trust will go to her nieces and nephews, the grandchildren of the original trust settlor.
You have just gotten a letter from the daughter, asking you for an additional $3,000 per month to pay for her care. You know that the remainder beneficiaries — the nieces and nephews — might object to that extra distribution. What should you do?
That is essentially the problem faced by Citigroup Trust, which is trustee of just such a trust. It was established by Esther Caplan for the benefit of her daughter, and it is administered in Arizona. After Citigroup began making regular distributions to the daughter, one of her nephews questioned whether the trustee should be giving her additional funds. Eric Bistrow told Citigroup that he wanted more information about his aunt’s finances, and that he wondered whether the trust was funding a too-lavish standard of living.
To make sure that they understood the daughter’s needs, Citigroup requested (and got) tax returns and a budget. They decided to keep making the distributions, but also to ask the Arizona courts for direction.
Citigroup filed what in Arizona trust law is called a “Petition for Instructions.” They essentially asked the probate judge to tell them whether they were right to make the discretionary distributions of principal.
In the course of the proceedings, Mr. Bistrow and his attorney asked to look at his aunt’s budget, tax returns and financial information. Citigroup declined, saying that the information was private and should not be shared. How, then, would Mr. Bistrow know that they had properly considered her financial needs? The trustee suggested that it would give the records to the probate judge, and let him review them privately; if there were concerns or questions, the judge could make the decision to share them, or some portion of them.
The probate judge agreed, looked at the records, and approved the past and proposed future distributions to Ms. Caplan’s daughter. It also confirmed that Mr. Bistrow and the other nephews and nieces were entitled to statements showing how much was actually distributed, as well as how much was earned by the trust and what other expenses it incurred.
The nieces and nephews appealed, arguing that they were not being given enough input into the decision to distribute trust principal to their aunt. Their position was that they should be notified before any distributions could be made, that they should be given full financial information, and that they should be given an opportunity to weigh in on their aunt’s need for funds.
Not so, ruled the Arizona Court of Appeals. Mr. Bistrow and the other remainder beneficiaries are entitled to be treated fairly. They are entitled to know what the trustee is doing. They are entitled to ask the courts to intervene if they think the trustee has exceeded its authority. They are not, however, entitled to see their aunt’s financial records, or to vote on whether the trustee should exercise its discretion to make distributions to her. In Re the Matter of Esther Caplan Trust, September 1, 2011.
The Caplan case is focused on a narrow question, but it has broader application. It also raises (but does not answer) a number of interesting questions. It gives important guidance to trustees on how to safely exercise the discretion given by a trust document.
What are some of the lessons of Caplan? A few come to mind:
- Asking for court review of decisions which might be challenged should always be considered. It may be that the amount in controversy is too small to justify court involvement, or that the trustee’s decision is simply unassailable, or that the remainder beneficiaries are agreeable. But in any case in which there might be disagreement, the Petition for Instructions is a good safeguard for the trustee.
- Remainder beneficiaries are important, and their interests need to be considered in administering a trust. But the income beneficiary’s interest is usually paramount. Remainder beneficiaries are not in charge of trust administration.
- Notwithstanding that remainder beneficiaries are not in charge, they are still entitled to sufficient information so that they can determine if their interests are being adequately protected. But “sufficient information” is not the same thing as “complete information.” It may sometimes (rarely, but occasionally) be appropriate for a trustee to withhold sensitive or personal information. Usually, it would be wise to identify the information which is not being shared, so that the remainder beneficiaries can make a reasoned decision about whether to challenge that determination, too.
- Creative thinking can come up with solutions that protect everyone’s interests and violate none. Giving the judge a chance to review the financial records in camera (privately) was just such a creative solution.