I’m the type of person who genuinely believes anything can be done. And as a Grand Rapids, MI estate planning attorney I bring that same attitude to helping craft caring estate plans for wonderful West Michigan families. How? Flexibility. That’s right – not the standard form document that seems to try and wedge your family into whatever box is the “standard,” but rather a plan that let’s you share your goals, aspirations, hopes, values, experiences and stories, and makes it a reality. One of the biggest “wishes” is that a plan will be flexible enough to handle changed circumstances throughout life. One incredibly powerful tool used to accomplish this is a trust protector.
Trust protectors (aka Trust Advisors) have long been used in British Commonwealth countries, originating with offshore asset protection trusts. With these trusts, their role was limited mostly to overseeing the foreign trustee and to make sure the trust maker’s intent was fulfilled.
Today, trust protectors are increasingly being used with trusts that are located here in Michigan. And, while their main job is still to oversee the trustee and make sure your intentions are followed after unforeseen changes in the law and other matters, they can be given additional duties that will provide you and your beneficiaries with added flexibility, security and peace of mind.
What is a Trust Protector?
A trust protector is someone you name in your trust agreement to oversee your trustee and make sure your trust carries on in the way you intended. This should be a trusted friend or advisor, someone who knows and understands your motives, family values and desires when you created your trust. In the case of a trust that will last many years, like a multi-generational trust, a trust protector is often an institution rather than a specific person.
A trust protector can begin to act immediately (for example, if your trust is irrevocable), or can take an active role only under certain circumstances (for example, at your incapacity or death). Think of your trust protector as your substitute, someone who can speak for you if there is uncertainty in interpreting your trust’s instructions, or the law changes and that change affects your trust. Your trust protector also can provide guidance for the trustee and protect your beneficiaries from a trustee that is not meeting its responsibilities, is overreaching, or is unresponsive.
How Much Power Should You Give Your Trust Protector?
The trust protector’s duties and powers are defined in the trust document, and can range from extremely limited to extremely broad. How much power you give your trust protector is completely up to you. Traditionally, the trust protector’s role has been a defensive one: to ensure that the trustee carries out the trustmaker’s wishes and to protect the beneficiaries from an under-performing or over-reaching trustee. But if you give your trust protector more power, the role can become a proactive one, allowing your trust protector to act before wrongs occur.
Some of the duties and powers you can give your trust protector include:
Oversee, Remove and Replace the Trustee
Your trust protector can oversee your trustee, providing guidance in interpreting your trust’s instructions and holding the trustee accountable. You can also give your trust protector the power to remove and replace the trustee. This authority can be restrictive, limited to specific bad behavior by the trustee that can include being unresponsive to the beneficiaries, not providing acceptable record-keeping, reporting and tax filings, or charging too much for services. The authority can also be extensive, allowing the trust protector to remove and replace the trustee for no specific reason (without cause). Usually potential replacements (successor trustees) are named in the trust agreement, but it may also be possible for the trust protector to select a successor trustee.
Just having these oversight provisions in place is often enough to keep a trustee in line. And if it does become necessary to remove a trustee, it is much easier for the trust protector to do this (because he or she already has the authority) than for the beneficiaries to reach an agreement and ask for court removal, which is a time-consuming, expensive and unpleasant procedure.
You can also allow your trust protector to control spending by the trustee, and even limit the trustee’s compensation, which can go a long way toward preventing disputes.
You can also make your trust protector the mediator if disputes should arise between co-trustees, between the trustee and a beneficiary, or even among beneficiaries. Having the trust protector as the final arbiter in disputes over interpreting the provisions of the trust document can sometimes avoid costly and unpleasant trust litigation.
You could even give your trust protector the ability to sue or defend lawsuits involving the trust assets.
Modify Your Estate Plan
You may also want to allow your trust protector to actually make some changes to your trust. For example, you could allow your trust protector to change the situs (location in which the trust is regulated) to a state that has more favorable asset protection or income tax laws, should the need arise.
You could also give your trust protector the power to amend or revoke the trust agreement, in its entirety or in part; to add or delete specific beneficiaries or classes of beneficiaries; or to change the terms of distributions to beneficiaries. These powers may be extremely beneficial to the trust’s ability to follow your intentions as tax laws change, as well as to protect the assets from potential predators and creditors.
Delegate Responsibilities among Advisors
Traditionally, and still with many trusts, the trustee handles everything – recordkeeping, tax returns, distributions, investing, etc. But over time, people have discovered that it is beneficial to allocate some of this responsibility to different parties that have different strengths.
Consider giving your trust protector the ability to appoint, oversee and substitute other professionals. For example, the management of your trust could be divided like this:
- An Administrative Trustee maintains trust records, accounts, and tax returns. If the trust is governed by laws in a different state (often for tax or asset protection reasons), the administrator will usually be a local institution or professional.
- A Distribution Trustee or Adviser that has discretion and can make or withhold distributions from the trust to the beneficiaries. Typically this will be an objective third party, which insulates the trustee from pressure and liability associated with the power to distribute trust assets. This is especially important if a beneficiary’s creditor tries to force distributions from the trust.
- An Investment Trustee or Adviser oversees or directs trust investments, and may be granted specific powers, including: to hold, maintain or cancel life insurance; to direct the sale or exchange of property; and to open, manage and close accounts. A general trustee is held to the prudent investment standard because of its fiduciary duty and, as a result, has restrictions on the investments it can make. Having an investment advisor that is not bound by the prudent investor rule or held to the same standard will provide more flexibility in investments.
- The “General” Trustee handles everything that is not delegated.
Who Should Serve as Trust Protector?
Ideally, your trust protector should be someone who knows you, your motives, desires, and intentions when you established your trust. It cannot be you or a family member who is a beneficiary of your trust because of possible tax complications. An unrelated third party – a family friend, an advisor, the attorney who drafted your trust, or your family CPA – is often the best choice. They obviously must be willing to serve in this capacity, and your trust agreement should specify if they are to be paid for their services.
Who Should Have the Power to Remove or Replace the Trust Protector?
This probably should not be you, unless the replacement is explicitly limited in the document to someone who is not related or subordinate to you. You could possibly give this power to the beneficiaries or an unrelated third party. Leaving this decision to the courts would be time-consuming and costly.
If your plan has asset protection elements, no beneficiary should have the power to remove or replace the trust protector. Doing so could cause your trust to be under the control of a beneficiary and that could put the entire asset protection part of your plan in jeopardy.
The use of trust protectors is an excellent way to provide added flexibility, security and peace of mind in trust planning, especially since you can control how much power the trust protector is given. If you would like to discuss adding a trust protector to your estate planning, please call our office. We are ready to help.
Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™. This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you. He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning. He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.