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  • Writer's pictureJay Judas

Tier One: What is a Trust Protector?

Life insurance professionals frequently encounter clients who possess or plan to transfer assets into trusts. However, committing to trust terms that may endure for generations amidst evolving laws and circumstances can be daunting. Recent developments in IRS guidelines, as outlined in Chief Counsel's Memorandum 202352018, have stirred discussions around modified trusts and their treatment. Specifically, when a court modifies a trust to allow the grantor reimbursement for income taxes paid on trust income, beneficiaries are now viewed as having made a gift to the grantor.


This shift in IRS stance prompts questions about its scope, particularly whether it solely applies to court-modified trusts or extends to trusts altered by individuals with similar authority, such as a Trust Protector. To address these concerns, appointing a Trust Protector can offer flexibility, though it also introduces new considerations.

Discussing Trust Protectors

A Trust Protector is an individual designated within a trust instrument to fulfill specific purposes not already delegated to the trust's creator (settlor), trustee, or beneficiaries. Initially conceived as a mechanism to oversee foreign trustees of offshore trusts, the role has evolved into a solution for potential, unforeseen issues arising in trust administration.


The powers granted to a Trust Protector encompass both administrative and substantive realms. Administrative powers include the authority to remove and appoint a successor trustee, consent to or veto trustee actions, amend the trust to leverage new tax laws, review and approve financials and relocate the trust's principal place of administration.


More substantial Trust Protector powers may involve directing trustees in investment and distribution decisions, adjusting beneficiary interests, granting powers of appointment, or exercising powers of appointment. Notably, if a Trust Protector possesses the lifetime power to appoint trust assets to a specific class of beneficiaries outright or in trust, they effectively hold the authority to transfer assets into a new trust, a process known as decanting.


It's crucial to recognize that state laws governing the use and powers of Trust Protectors vary. While 36 jurisdictions have adopted versions of the Uniform Trust Code (UTC) providing guidance on the role, others, like New York, rely on court affirmation of powers and obligations.


Doing the Job of a Trust Protector

The duties and authority vested in a Trust Protector wield significant influence over the management and execution of a trust. Here are some key aspects of a trust protector's role:


  1. Supervision and Guidance: A Trust Protector holds the power to supervise and direct actions pertinent to the trust, ensuring alignment with the settlor's intentions and beneficiaries' best interests.

  2. Modification of Trust Terms: Trust Protectors can amend the trust instrument to optimize tax status, adapt to legal changes, or address evolving beneficiary needs. This might involve leveraging alterations in legal frameworks or tailoring the trust to better fulfill its intended functions, such as dynasty, special purpose, or supplemental needs trusts.

  3. Removal and Appointment of Trustees: An essential prerogative of a trust protector is the authority to dismiss underperforming trustees and appoint replacements. This ensures the trust is managed by capable individuals who uphold its objectives.

  4. Prevention of Beneficiary Actions: Trust Protectors can intervene to prevent beneficiaries from assuming trustee roles or making trustee-related decisions, safeguarding the trust's integrity and purpose envisioned by the settlor.

  5. Termination of the Trust: In specific circumstances, a trust protector may have the power to terminate the trust if it serves the beneficiaries' best interests. Factors informing such a decision may include the prevailing political, economic, and legal landscapes.


These responsibilities underscore the Trust Protector's pivotal role as a custodian of the trust's purpose and as a mediator between the settlor's intentions, trustee administration, and beneficiary needs.


The question of whether appointing a loved one as a trust protector burdens them with fiduciary duties depends on the circumstances. UTC states presume trust protectors to be fiduciaries, bound to act in good faith and in the trust's and beneficiaries' interests. However, this presumption may be rebutted if the trust explicitly states that the trust protector isn't a fiduciary. Nonetheless, courts will assess the powers assigned to determine if a fiduciary role is assumed.


The potential assignment of fiduciary duties is significant, as it subjects the trust protector to liability for breaching those duties. Such liability can only be imposed if the trust protector accepts the duties, either expressly or implicitly through power exercises triggering these duties.


Exploring Alternatives to Trust Protectors

Clients seeking to limit trustee authority have alternative mechanisms available. They can appoint an independent co-trustee to restrict family trustee powers, mandating joint agreement for decisions. Trust documents can also authorize trust beneficiaries, or a majority thereof, to remove and replace trustees instead of relying on a trust protector.


Moreover, the designation of a "trust advisor" or "investment advisor" within the trust document can direct investments or manage closely held businesses. For trusts holding substantial assets, establishing "distribution committees" may guide distribution decisions.


While trust protectors offer a valuable check on trustee powers and enhance trust flexibility, financial advisors should advise clients to carefully consider family dynamics, state laws, and potential fiduciary liabilities before incorporating trust protector provisions.


At Life Insurance Strategies Group, we do not sell life insurance products. We help our individual and institutional clients make decisions involving complex situations potentially involving life insurance.

 

At Life Insurance Strategies Group, we do not sell products. We help our individual and institutional clients make decisions involving complex life insurance transactions.

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