Serving as the trustee of a special needs trust (SNT) can be particularly challenging because it often requires long-term financial management of the trust, while maintaining a good relationship with the beneficiary. Furthermore, because trustees wield great financial power over the trust assets, oversight of their investment and distribution decisions is helpful. Trust protectors can add an additional layer of protection to oversee the management of a trust, supervise the trustee’s actions and remove and replace the trustee when needed. This article delves into why appointing a trust protector is a critical decision that can significantly impact the management of a SNT and guard the beneficiary’s rights.
The Case of Senator Feinstein: A Cautionary Tale
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s lawsuit against the trustees of her late husband Richard Blum’s trust, as related in The Hill’s article, “Feinstein accuses trustees of husband’s estate of financial abuse”, highlights one reason why a trust protector may be helpful. Before her death in September 2023, Feinstein accused the trustees of withholding funds and breaching their fiduciary duties.
Through three separate lawsuits, Feinstein claimed that the trustees breached their fiduciary duties to honor the terms of the trust by not making the anticipated distributions of $5 million that were supposed to be placed into her trust in quarterly installments. She argued that the trustees’ inaction in their administration of the trust was intended to benefit Blum’s daughters at her expense, who were slated to receive $22 million each from the trust without Feinstein’s distribution.
For the late Sen. Feinstein, a trust protector may have provided the needed control over the trust assets to leverage the distribution intended by her late husband, who was the settlor. In the context of a special needs trust, where disabled beneficiaries may not be able to supervise their trustees, the role of a trust protector becomes even more critical in managing the trust.
What is a Trust Protector?
Special Needs Alliance explains in the article “Trust Protectors for Special Needs Trusts” that a trust protector is a person appointed to oversee the actions of the trustee and ensure that a trust is administered in line with the settlor’s intentions. Suppose a trustee performs in a manner that is unsatisfactory or even mismanages the trust assets. In that case, the trust protector can be empowered by the trust document to replace that person with a successor trustee. This role is particularly important in special needs trusts, where beneficiaries might not fully understand or be able to manage their financial affairs due to the nature of their disabilities.
How Does a Trust Protector Oversee the Trustee?
A trust protector works alongside the trustee, providing an extra layer of oversight in managing the trust assets according to the instructions in the trust document. They can resolve disputes, guide trustees and ensure that the trust’s administration aligns with the settlor’s intent. Trust protectors are granted various powers, including the ability to review trustee actions, including distribution decisions, replace the trustee and amend trust terms to adapt to changing laws and beneficiary needs. Their primary responsibility is to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries.
How Do Grantors Choose the Right Trust Protector?
Naming a trust protector involves considering their expertise, impartiality and understanding of the beneficiary’s needs. A third party, such as an attorney, accountant, or other professional, can often serve in this role. Family members who may be too challenged by the role of trustee also make a good choice for the trust protector. Selecting a family member who has a good relationship with the beneficiary, understands the nature of their disability and can serve as a good mediator between the trustee and beneficiary is a wise choice.
What Role Do Trust Protectors Play in Special Needs Trusts?
In special needs trusts, trust protectors play a vital role in ensuring that the trust caters to the unique needs of the beneficiary, considering their disability and inability to manage financial affairs. Their role can vary based on the trust agreement terms and state laws. The trust protector can review financial decisions or investments and sometimes force large distributions for purchases, like a house or car, based on the impact on the beneficiary. They can also help the beneficiary understand financial statements and tax documents provided by the trustee.
Is a Trust Protector Also Important to Consider for General Estate Planning?
Appointing a trust protector into any trust is a critical decision. It adds an extra layer of protection and adaptability, ensuring that the trust remains effective and relevant over time. Only a few states have specific laws authorizing and regulating trust protectors. Therefore, it’s essential to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to carefully draft the trust to define the role and anticipate potential issues in exercising the power of the trustee or trust protector.
The Future of Trust Protectors in Estate Planning
As laws and family dynamics evolve, the role of trust protectors is becoming increasingly important in estate planning, offering flexibility and protection for beneficiaries.
Trust protectors offer an essential safeguard in trust administration, especially for special needs trusts. Their oversight ensures that the trust remains effective, adaptable and true to the settlor’s intentions, providing peace of mind for both settlors and beneficiaries.
- Trust protectors provide essential oversight and adaptability.
- They ensure that the trust’s administration aligns with the settlor’s intent.
- Their role is crucial in special needs trusts for beneficiaries who cannot manage their affairs.
- Trust protectors are becoming increasingly important in modern estate planning.
If you would like to learn more about trust protectors, and trusts generally, please visit our previous posts.
Photo by Mike Bird