Demographic Trends Suggest More Estate, Trust And Probate Litigation In The Decades To Come

I have long been interested in demographic trends, emerging technologies, cultural changes, and shifting societal patterns.  For example, 20+ years ago when I was in college I read Alvin and Heidi Toffler's  "War And Anti-War," which while a bit dated now predicts how future wars will be fought (but with an eye toward peace and avoiding such conflicts).   Similarly, about 5 years ago I read George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast For The 21st Century,"  which was an eye-opening look at how our  nation and world may likely look in the years and decades to come.  I highly recommend either book for some fascinating reading, and it will be interesting to someday see how accurate or inaccurate their predictions were.

 Then,  a couple weeks ago I came across a very interesting article by a Georgia attorney named John J. Scroggin, in Wealth Strategies Journal,  which focused in particular upon 30 positive and negative trends that will impact estate planning over the next several decades:  "Where Is The Estate Planning Profession Going?"    While I focus much of my law practice upon estate, trust and probate litigation---as opposed to estate planning and drafting of wills, trusts, and the like---the article still addressed my areas of interest and I thought I would share a couple excerpts here.  Better yet, lawyers and laypersons   should take the time to read the entire article  which not only encompasses great analysis but also contains good references to other articles, checklists, outlines, etc.

               For example, with regard to estate and trust litigation in general Mr. Scroggin opines that:

               "(9) Estate and Trust Litigation. As a result of the combination of poorly drafted  documents, dysfunctional families, incompetent fiduciaries, greedy heirs, inadequate  planning and poorly prepared fiduciaries, estate litigation has been booming in the last  few decades. This growth will continue.

               One consequence of the increased litigation will be an increased effort by both individual and institutional fiduciaries to make sure estate and trust instruments provide for strong  fiduciary protection. We should anticipate more protective provisions in fiduciary  instruments, including broader indemnity provisions for fiduciaries, modifications of the  normal fiduciary standards and investment polices, broader use of no contest clauses,  limited liability for delegated powers and limits (or increases) on disclosures to  beneficiaries. These changes will increase the need to create counter-balancing powers  designed to protect beneficiaries (e.g., a wider use of Trust Protectors and fiduciary  removal powers). As a result, there will be longer discussions with clients and the  complexity of the documents will increase."

               Related to the foregoing are Mr. Scroggin's thoughts on avoiding estate and trust litigation altogether, through conflict minimization:

               "(10) Conflict Minimization. The corollary to estate and trust litigation is planning  designed to mitigate the potential sources of intra-family estate conflicts. According to  the Wealth Counsel 6th Annual Industry Trends Survey, the top motivation for doing  estate planning was to avoid the chaos and conflict among the client’s heirs. Many clients  have an abiding desire to establish structures which minimize the potential points of  conflict and provide a mechanism to resolve future family conflicts. Clients want to  dispose of assets in a manner designed to minimize family conflict - leaving a legacy of  relationships rather than a legacy of conflict. This is a growing part of the discussion with  clients and a part of their planning documents. Solutions include using personal property  disposition lists, looking at real or perceived conflicts of interest when appointing  fiduciaries, or passing the family business only to the children running the business. As  noted above, attorneys will need to spend more time talking with clients about providing  greater protections to fiduciaries and creating counterbalancing protections for heirs.

 Many individual fiduciaries agree to serve without fully understanding the potential  liabilities and conflict they may be inserting themselves into. Should attorneys provide written materials (perhaps signed by the client and the fiduciary) detailing the  responsibility of the fiduciary, the risk of conflict and the means by which the drafter has  tried to minimize those exposures? Should attorneys more thoroughly advise their clients  on the necessary skill   sets needed by their fiduciaries - instead of just accepting the  client's choices at face value?"

  In sum, as I have written before on this blog, American society is rapidly changing.  The Baby Boomers have begun retiring over the last many years and will continue to do so over the next 2-3 decades.  Large sums of wealth have been acquired and will be transferred to younger generations.  People are living longer, and the aging population will be less competent due to Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia which will lead to conflicts over whether a deceased person had the requisite capacity to execute a will or trust.  These and other trends strongly support the notion that there will be increasingly more estate, trust and probate litigation in the decades to come.

               Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at  mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Managing Someone Else's Money

 Estate, trust, power of attorney and probate disputes often develop due to disagreements over the manner in which someone managed another person's money. For example, the beneficiaries of a will might disagree with the executor's claim for fees related to administration of an estate.  Co-trustees might differ as to the best investments for maximizing the income and assets of a trust.  Two children might question the propriety of their third sibling's withdrawals of money from their mother's bank account, pursuant to a financial power of attorney that the mother apparently executed at some point in the past.

 To provide guidance in these situations, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has recently released 4 booklets entitled "Managing Someone Else's Money" which are intended for such persons as trustees, agents under powers of attorney, court-appointed guardians, and government fiduciaries.  Not only do they assist those who are honestly and legitimately attempting to assist in the management of money or property for a loved one, they also provide information on warning signs and things to look for when someone else is doing the managing of that person's finances.

 Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, House & Downing, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Common Mistakes When Serving As Trustee

My last post discussed the pros and cons of institutional trustees vs. family member trustees.  Regardless of whom is serving as trustee, in the course of my law practice there are common themes which repeatedly arise in the area of trust disputes and litigation.  Specifically, it is easy for trustees---especially inexperienced family member trustees---to make mistakes when administering a trust.  Some of these were nicely summarized in a recent article, published in Barron's Penta, entitled "The Five Biggest Ways To Bungle A Trust." 

(1) Not Keeping Good Trust Records---The Arkansas Trust Code, and presumably trust laws in most if not all other states, contain requirements mandating that trustees provide beneficiaries with accountings of trust assets, income, expenditures, etc.  The timing and extent of those accountings can vary based upon certain factors, including whether one is an income beneficiary or a remainder beneficiary.  However, at all times the trustee is to act in the interest of the beneficiaries, which includes maintaining comprehensive and accurate records.  Trustees who do not keep such records act at their own peril, as gaps and inaccuracies in documentation (even if purely innocent) can create an aura of suspicion and sometimes later liability for breach of trust, breach of fiduciary duty, etc. 

(2) Not Diversifying Trust Investments---Another duty which too often goes unfulfilled is the trustee's obligation to properly diversify trust investments.  Just because the trustee might handle their own investment portfolio in a certain manner does not mean that the investments are being properly handled with regard to the beneficiaries of the trust.  For example, if the beneficiary is an elderly person in need of income, having the trust's assets invested in 100% tech stocks is not likely to be deemed a wise investment strategy.  Arkansas has a Prudent Investor Act which must be reviewed and followed, and it is based upon a well-recognized uniform act that is utilized in many other jurisdictions as well. 

(3) Not Distributing Trust Assets Fairly---A trustee owes a fiduciary duty to current beneficiaries, as well as to remainder beneficiaries.  Sometimes this can create problems when a duty to one conflicts with a duty to another.  Also, sometimes in the case of family member trustees, the trustee is herself a beneficiary (e.g., perhaps the father named his daughter as trustee of his trust after his death, but also named her as a beneficiary like his two sons/her two brothers).  Especially when no trustee fee is involved (see below), we have seen cases in which the trustee is tempted to take extra distributions, etc. as purported justification for being saddled with the extra time and work associated with acting as trustee.  This can be dangerous as it can constitute an actual impropriety, or at least suggest an appearance of impropriety.  It is therefore wise to maintain clear and well-documented records of all distribution decisions.

(4) Not Properly Handling The Trustee Fee---The fact is that administering a trust can involve a lot of work.  It can be very profitable, which is precisely why institutional trustees exist.  Families often do not want to see their assets being consumed in part by the fees of an institutional trustee (notwithstanding some of the advantages to using one), and so often a family member is named as trustee.  The family member, however, might have a time-consuming occupation and/or an active family life.  Adding the trustee duties on top of an already-busy schedule can naturally trigger a desire for some sort of compensation associated with the extra work.  Whatever the trustee fee arrangement is (assuming trustee fees are paid at all), similar to asset distributions discussed above it is wise for there to be a well-documented record of how trustee fees will be paid, when they will be paid, and how they will be calculated.

(5) Not Watching Your Back---A trusteeship has been viewed as involving the highest duty owed another under the law.  It entails a tremendous amount of responsibility, and should not be lightly regarded.  Individuals named as trustee in a trust instrument often view it as an honor, which is fine so long as the trustee treats it as such.  However, money has an uncanny way of sometimes causing people---including trustees and beneficiaries---to engage in actions and behavior which they (and others) perhaps never previously conceived.  Occasionally this will result in nasty disputes between trustees and beneficiaries which can ultimately erupt into actual litigation.  A trustee might innocently take on that "oath of office," so to speak, never imagining that they might someday be mired in stressful, expensive disagreements with once-close friends or family members.  On that note, typically the trustee's dispute is not with the person who named them as trustee (i.e., in a revocable trust situation the grantor of the trust can simply remove or change the trustee)---instead, the fight will frequently be with the children or grandchildren of the grantor. 

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.

Mediation As An Alternative To Inheritance Litigation

Lawsuits are not the only way to resolve disputes, and arguably are not even the best way.  Litigation can be financially expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally tolling.  Especially in the context of estate, trust and probate litigation, the disputes often involve persons who know each other, including relatives, friends, and business associates.  Accordingly, in addition to the expenditure of money, time and emotions, litigation can sometimes involve harm to the relationships between the litigants. 

Because of the foregoing concerns, different types of alternative dispute resolution have been developed over the years.  One of these methods, in particular, is conducive to the issues arising in inheritance-related disputes.  Specifically, mediation generally involves a third party called a "mediator" who is specially trained to attempt to bring the adverse parties to a compromise and settle their differences.  Unlike the judge or jury, or an arbitrator, a mediator does not resolve the dispute for the parties but instead aims to facilitate a final resolution that the parties reach on their own.  There are many such mediators in Arkansas (e.g., Hamlin Dispute Resolution, ADR, Inc., etc.), and we have successfully used them in the past on behalf of our own clients.  A good article in the New York Times this weekend also discusses mediation in the elder law context. 

A simple fact is that the death of a loved one is already a stressful experience.  If, for example, that person's estate is perceived to not have been distributed in the manner in which that decedent intended (or perhaps in a way in which a would-be recipient originally anticipated it), long-simmering feuds can rise to the surface and minor misunderstandings can erupt into major conflicts.  Occasionally it's too late, but the relationships of the persons involved can frequently be maintained, and their disputes ultimately resolved,  by mediation.  Drawn-out court battles can be avoided or at least minimized, and the money and property in dispute can be preserved instead of exhausted on the litigation process.  Mediation is confidential as opposed to occurring in the public eye, can be scheduled by the parties at their convenience rather than subject to the limited openings in a Court's docket, and takes place in a neutral conference room rather than in an often-intimidating courtroom. 

Not every dispute is ideal or appropriate for mediation, but it can and should be considered as an alternative method of dispute resolution.  

Matt House can be contacted by telephone at 501-372-6555, by e-mail at mhouse@jamesandhouse.com, by facsimile at 501-372-6333, or by regular mail at James, Fink & House, P.A., Post Office Box 3585, Little Rock, Arkansas 72203.