The recent Pfannenstiehl v. Pfannenstiehl case in Massachusetts is a pretty good indication that the use of ascertainable standards in asset protection planning is dangerous. While this may be news to you, the Lawyers with Purpose legal community has known this for some time and has changed its recommended planning strategy more than seven years ago on how to ensure asset protection is maintained.
When creating an irrevocable trust, some of the most important legal determinations made are the discretion granted to the trustee to make distributions to the beneficiaries. The two most common are "wholly discretionary" and "ascertainable standards." What is the difference? Traditionally when a trustee is allowed to make distributions pursuant to the health, education, maintenance and support of the beneficiary, that is traditionally identified as ascertainable standards, otherwise known as HEMS.
This standard was predominantly created through tax law cases where the question became whether the trustee garnered too much control or authority so as to include the assets of the trust in the taxable estate. The court cases resolved that as long as there were ascertainable standards, it would provide sufficient discretion so as not to have the adverse tax impact. So HEMS became the standard of discretion for trustees. Once again, it was a case of the tail wagging the dog. While estate tax planning was a concern in generations past, since 2001 with the passage of EGTRRA and the massive expansion of the estate tax exemption, the HEMS standard for estate tax purposes only applies to less than two out of 1,000 Americans. Why is it, then, that most lawyers still draft their trust for everyone according to the restrictions required for the two-tenths of 1 percent of Americans? The typical answer is, because that's the way they always did it.
At Lawyers with Purpose, we are absolutely present and future-oriented and always looking at the current laws, but more importantly, we consider the relevance of the laws to the needs of the clients. For example, I remember particularly a case where I drafted an irrevocable life insurance trust and granted powers to the spouse that could deem it to be includable in her estate. While this was not the best tax planning strategy for the client, I clearly reviewed all the rules with the client, explained the adverse consequences and the client's response was "I don't care about the tax impacts; I want my wife to have it." In such a case, I had the client sign an acknowledgment that he was made aware of the adverse consequence, but to any third party reviewing the trust, they were confident I committed malpractice. That's the challenge today: Lawyers want to impose their ways on clients. Our job is not to tell clients what to do; our job is to tell clients what they can do, the pros and the cons of each approach, and to let them make the decisions that best suit the needs of their family. Such is true with ascertainable standards.
It is LWP’s recommendation – and has been for many years – wholly discretionary powers are typically worded as that a wholly discretionary standard be used rather than ascertainable standards, “the trustee shall make distributions to any beneficiary in their sole and absolute discretion….” This assures that discretion is held wholly within the trustee and there is less risk of the trust being invaded by outside sources to ensure for the health, education, maintenance and support of the beneficiary. Can you imagine a court looking at a trust that a senior residing in a nursing home was the beneficiary of and the trust provided that that senior was the beneficiary and the trustee can make distributions for health, education, maintenance and support? How can the trustee not deem a distribution for the cost of that nursing home to be for their health or maintenance or support? It's an accident waiting to happen. In fact some states like Ohio have gone as far as to say that any trust that has ascertainable standards can be pierced to make medical payments in accordance with the health, education, maintenance and support provisions. Don't wait. Stop using ascertainable standards now and protect your clients from any undue risk of having their asset protection trust invaded.
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David J. Zumpano, Co-founder - Lawyers With Purpose, Founder and Senior Partner of Estate Planning Law Center