Estate planning attorneys often wax poetic about the multitude of advantages found in a simple trust instrument. They’re not wrong. A well-crafted trust is an excellent vehicle for addressing a client’s concerns under a variety of different circumstances. Clients may place assets in a trust for tax benefits, creditor and divorce protection, planning for incapacity, family dynamics and a host of other reasons.
Yet no trust exists without a level of complexity and sophistication. Every trust has a trustee who must fulfill strict fiduciary duties and carefully manage the trust assets for the beneficiaries. The terms for distributing property from the trust may involve difficult calculations or restrictive standards that are not easily met. In some cases, a trust instrument’s vague provisions may leave both the trustee and beneficiaries confused as to how to proceed with the trust administration. Eventually, these complexities may become overly burdensome. Life circumstances may also render the trust’s intended benefits and purpose unnecessary.
Whatever the reason, trustees and beneficiaries often find themselves stuck with a trust that no longer meets their needs. But many of these trusts are or have become irrevocable and cannot be unilaterally terminated. Trustees and beneficiaries should not despair, however. Texas law has recognized several different ways to modify or ultimately terminate those pesky trusts.
A. Uneconomical Trusts
The Texas Trust Code enables a trustee to terminate a trust whose assets are valued less than $50,000. The trustee must consider the purpose of the trust and the nature of the assets, and ultimately determine that the value of the assets is insufficient to match the costs of continued administration. A common example of this occurs when a trust established under the provisions of a deceased person’s will receives only minimal funding from the deceased’s estate. The amount held in trust often does not justify the time, effort, and cost in administering the trust.
B. Combining Separate Trusts
Typically, the Texas Trust Code does not allow the outright termination of a trust without petitioning a court of proper jurisdiction for approval. But its provisions do allow for combining two or more separate trusts into a single trust without a judicial proceeding. This is only permissible where the combination would not impair the rights of any beneficiary or prevent the trustee from carrying out the purposes of either trust. Again, this is a great tool for consolidating trusts established under a deceased person’s will.“
Another alternative to judicial termination of a trust, “decanting,” is the distribution of trust assets from one trust to a new trust that may have slightly different terms. The helpfulness of this provision of the Texas Trust Code largely depends on how much discretion the original trust grants the trustee. An attorney will need to carefully evaluate the level of variance the new trust may have under the circumstances.
D. Judicial Termination
A trustee or beneficiary may petition a court of proper jurisdiction to order the termination or modification of a trust. However, the grounds to do so are limited and specifically outlined in the Texas Trust Code. Petitioners should not expect a quick and easy process; terminating a trust in a court of law requires careful preparation, evidence, and a willing judge.
E. Termination by Agreement
Texas case law has recognized that in certain instances the settlor, trustee, and beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust may collectively agree to terminate the trust. This is a great tool if all parties are agreeable. But it does have its drawbacks. If the settlor is dead, then no agreement may be reached. Furthermore, an incapacitated beneficiary may not enter the agreement, further halting any opportunity to proceed under this method.
Trusts are excellent vehicles to achieve any number of tax, asset protection, or family dynamics-related objectives. At some point, these irrevocable trusts may become burdensome and unnecessary. An attorney may use the methods mentioned above to terminate or modify those pesky trusts.
Spencer Turner is an associate attorney at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP. Since obtaining his license to practice law in 2016, Mr. Turner primarily has focused his legal efforts in the trust and estates arena. He has been featured as a speaker on various aspects of the probate process at several seminars hosted by the National Business Institute. Spencer graduated from Baylor University School of Law.