HomeESTATE PLANNINGSELF-SETTLED REVOCABLE TRUSTS ARE VALID IN OKLAHOMA

In the case of WELCH v. CROW, 2009 OK 20, 206 P.3d 599 Decided: 03/31/2009 THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF OKLAHOMADYLAN WELCH and HILLARY found that on April 12, 1995, a mother created her revocable trust and executed a pour-over will. Pour over wills are never intended to be probated, since all of the property is supposed to be owned in the revocable trust.

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The only problem is that the mother had a deceased son who left issue that she didn’t leave anything to in her trust or in her will. Neither the will nor the Trust made any provision for her deceased son’s issue. The grandchildren fought the will and trust. They claimed they were entitled to a share of the Trust as pretermitted heirs or that the Trust was illusory.

The Supreme Court held that: 1) Oklahoma’s pretermitted heirs statute, 84 O.S. 2001 §132, is not applicable to revocable inter vivos trusts; and 2) because the Trust provided for contingent beneficiaries, it was not illusory simply because Neighbors was the sole trustee and the only vested present beneficiary.
The mother her revocable trust and she was the sole trustee and only vested beneficiary during her life. Upon its creation, some of her property was conveyed into the Trust. The terms of the Trust provided that at the time of her death, the successor trustees were to be her daughters, and her son-in-law, collectively, the trustees. After the Trust paid the expenses of the estate, the remaining principal and income were to be distributed to the daughters in equal shares.

The will recognized that the mother had four children, including the one deceased. The son deceased was deceased at the time of the will’s execution. The grandchildren were not referred to in the will. The will provided that at the time of her death, the entirety of her estate was to be distributed to the Trust. This is what a pour-over will usually does, it pours-over into the trust. If the Trust were not in existence at the time of her death, the will provided that her daughters take the entirety of her estate in equal shares. And the will also stated that she was omitting anything for her other living son.

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The trial court found that the omitted issue of her deceased son were her heirs and were pretermitted heirs as defined by 84 O.S. 2001 §132.7.

The grandchildren won with the will, so they then filed a suit contesting the trust. Asking the court to determine that either they had a statutory share in the Trust and were entitled to an accounting by the trustees or, in the alternative, that the Trust was illusory. The trial court ruled against the omitted grandchildren.

The first impression question before the Supreme Court was whether naming a contingent beneficiary satisfies the requirement that a trust may not have the same person as sole trustee and sole beneficiary.
Title 84 O.S. 2001 §132 Does Not Apply To Revocable Inter Vivos Trusts.

The grandchildren argued that as pretermitted heirs, they were entitled to a statutory share in the Trust under 84 O.S. 2001 §132.14 The trust responded that §132 applies only to wills, and not to trusts. The Supreme Court noted that the opinion of In re Estate of Jackson, 2008 OK 83, 194 P.3d 1269, held that §132 “unambiguously pertains only to wills. It does not encompass a situation where a child is omitted from a trust, and we decline to extend its reach to revocable inter vivos trusts, and that the grandchildren are not entitled to a statutory share in the Trust.

The other first impression question was whether naming a contingent beneficiary satisfies the requirement that a trust may not have the same person as sole trustee and sole beneficiary. In other words, can you make a self-settled trust when you are the sole beneficiary. The Supreme Court held that the right to dispose of property is an inalienable natural right that persists throughout a person’s lifetime, and the right to control disposition of property after death is subject to statutory limitations. And, that Oklahoma law permits an individual to dispose of property at death by trust.

When it is applied to the law of trusts, the so-called “merger doctrine” is the equitable concept that a valid trust must have a separation of the legal estate from the beneficial enjoyment, and that no trust can exist where the same person possesses both.18 Title 60 O.S. 2001 §175.6, without using the term “merger doctrine,” codifies the principle that if a trustor is a beneficiary and the sole trustee, a valid trust also requires a beneficiary other than the trustor.19 Title 60 O.S. 2001 §175.3(K) defines a trust beneficiary as “any person entitled to receive from a trust any benefit of whatsoever kind or character.”

The majority rule is that a trust is not illusory or invalid simply because the interests of its beneficiaries, other than the trustor, are contingent. The Restatement (Third) of Trusts §25, Comment b provides in pertinent part:

(The) validity (of) an inter vivos trust is not affected by the fact that the interests of all beneficiaries other than the settlor do not take effect in possession or enjoyment before the settlor’s death, or that they are contingent or subject to conditions subsequent, including the exercise of a power of revocation, withdrawal, amendment, or appointment reserved to the settlor, whether exercisable during life or by will.

The reporter’s note to Restatement (Third) of Trusts §25, Comment b provides in pertinent part:

(C)ourts regularly and properly find valid trusts where settlors have retained complete control, and where other beneficiaries usually, if drafting is competent, have only future interests that are not only defeasible (by revocation or amendment) but also “contingent” upon surviving the settlor and maybe other events as well. . . .

Seven states have enacted statutes which explicitly provide that a trust which has the same person as sole trustee and sole present beneficiary is not invalid if it provides for a contingent or successor beneficiary. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted a version of the Uniform Trust Code, which provides at §402(b) that a beneficiary is definite if the beneficiary can be ascertained at the time of the creation of the trust or at some time in the future, subject to the rule against perpetuities. The Uniform Comment to §402(a)(5) provides that the merger doctrine is not applicable to a trust with the same person as sole trustee and sole life interest beneficiary if another person is designated the remainder beneficiary. Two other states, which do not have a statute directly addressing the issue, have adopted the Restatement view in appellate court opinions. While there are a few state court decisions which take a view contrary to the Restatement, each of these decisions has been subsequently overruled by statute. A few other decisions appear to require a present, vested beneficiary other than the sole trustee, but, by using terms like “vested interest subject to divestment” to rename contingent interests, embrace the Restatement view for all practical purposes. Our research has not disclosed a viable case or statute contrary to the Restatement view on this issue.

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The Supreme Court stated that in Thomas v. Bank of Okla., N.A., 1984 OK 41, ¶21, 684 P.2d 553, this Court determined that a revocable inter vivos trust may not be employed to defeat a surviving spouse’s forced share of an estate as provided by 84 O.S. 2001 §44. The Court held that such a trust was illusory as to the surviving spouse and set forth the method of determining the validity of a trust:

(T)he test of the validity of a trust is whether the transfer is real or illusory; that the test is whether the settlor in good faith divested himself of the property ownership or simply made an illusory transfer as a mask for the effective retention of the property.

Here, it is clear that the Trust was not an artifice for the effective retention of Neighbors’ property. Instead, Neighbors employed the common estate-planning device of creating a revocable inter vivos trust and simultaneously executing a pour-over will to provide for her heirs at the time of her death. The Restatement view is persuasive and consistent with the definition of a trust beneficiary found at 60 O.S. 2001 §175.3(K). A trust is not illusory simply because it has the same person as the sole trustee and only vested present beneficiary if it provides for at least a contingent beneficiary.

The Supreme Court held that the Trust was not illusory simply because the mother was the sole trustee and she was the only vested present beneficiary during her life. Because the Trust provided for her daughters as contingent beneficiaries, it was a valid trust.

Brent D. Coldiron is a NAELA Member

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An experienced probate and living trust attorney like Brent D. Coldiron, knows what to do in these situations. His fees are reasonable. The best money ever spent is to get good legal advice before signing your name to something. Contact Brent at (405) 478-5655 or 737-2244. His website is http://coldironlaw.com.


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