T&E Litigation Newsletter - 10/9/12

October 2012Advisories

In Porst v. Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, No. 11-04137, 2012 Bankr. LEXIS 4680 (Bankr. D. Mass. Oct. 4, 2012), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts discussed what constitutes valid revocation of a revocable trust and whether the trustee of a revocable trust owes any duties to contingent remainder beneficiaries.

Mother established the revocable trust, naming herself as trustee and reserving to herself a life estate in any real property conveyed to the trust. The trust provided that upon mother’s death, her son would receive a life estate in the family home if it were still held in the trust. The revocation provision provided that mother could revoke or amend the trust by delivering to the trustee a written instrument that she had “signed and acknowledged.”

Ten years later, mother executed a document purporting to revoke the trust. The document bears the signatures of two witnesses, but was not acknowledged before a notary public. In her capacity as trustee, mother also deeded the family home from the trust to her son for one dollar. The son subsequently obtained a loan secured by the family home, and then filed for bankruptcy protection. The holder of the security interest filed a proof of claim in the bankruptcy proceeding. One of the issues in dispute was whether the security interest was valid, which turned on two questions – whether mother’s revocation of the trust was valid, and if not, whether her conveyance of the family home from the trust to her son was valid.

On the first question, the Court set forth the established principle that “a valid trust, once created, cannot be revoked or altered except by the exercise of a reserved power to do so, which must be exercised in strict conformity to its terms.” Based on this principle, the Court held that mother’s revocation of the trust was not valid because it was not in strict conformity to the trust’s revocation provision, which required the instrument to be signed and acknowledged by her. In reaching this holding, the Court relied on the following rationale from Phelps v. State Street Trust Company, 330 Mass. 511, 512-13 (1953): “We think that the requirement of acknowledgement meant that the settlor must acknowledge the instrument making the alteration before a public officer authorized by law to take acknowledgements of other writings. . . . And we think that the requirement of acknowledgement was not wholly for the benefit of the trustees, and that it could not be waived by them.”

On the second question, the son argued that even if the trust revocation were invalid, mother could not convey the family home from the trust to him for the inadequate consideration of one dollar, because doing so constituted a breach of her fiduciary duty to the contingent remainder beneficiaries (including himself, ironically). The Court rejected this argument, holding that because mother had the power to revoke the trust, she was free to do whatever she wanted with the family home. The Court reasoned that during the lifetime of a settlor/beneficiary of a revocable trust, a trustee is under no duty to consider the interests of the contingent remainder beneficiaries, because those interests may be divested by the settlor. “To hold otherwise would eviscerate an underlying purpose of the revocable trust and disrupt the expectations of the settlor.”

Accordingly, mother’s conveyance of the family home from the trust to her son was valid, and thus the security interest in the family home that the son subsequently gave to the lender was valid.

This update was authored by Mark Swirbalus, a Director in the firm's Probate & Fiduciary Litigation group. For questions or additional information on this topic, please contact Mark at [email protected] or contact any member of the Probate & Fiduciary Litigation group.

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