Georgia; The First Progressive UDTA “Directed Trust” State in the Nation

Georgia is the first state in the nation to enact sweeping UDTA trust law changes, centering primarily on “directed trusts”, with these changes effective July 1, 2018 (I refer again to “UDTA” at the end of this post).  These new laws are under O.C.G.A. Sections 53-12-500 thru 506. I will be providing brief posts in the near future about certain aspects of these changes. The “directed trust” is the current, progressive approach around the country for optimal trust planning.

The essence of what “directed trust” means is that the trustee of the trust, or even a named non-trustee advisor (called a “trust director” under the new Georgia law), can direct others — who each then become “directed trustees” — to handle certain aspects of the operation of the trust. For example, the trustee can direct an investment trustee to handle the investment management of the trust assets. Or, as another example, the trustee can direct an administrative trustee to handle the administration of the trust.

In other words, the trustee alone does not have to carry the burden and liability for all trust functions. This team approach using other directed trustees enables the trustee to carve up the trust responsibilities, sometimes referred to as à la carte trust administration.

Below are a handful of my initial, brief comments about directed trusts for this first blog post:

(1)  I really like Georgia’s statutory endorsement of directed trusts. Especially facing inescapable, impending aging, we and our families need a team approach for the care, protection, and oversight of our assets and affairs. I am not a fan of empowering only one individual to handle all of these matters, even if that one-person is a family member. There needs to be team input, and corresponding checks and balances where the team members each have a more independent view of the team’s efforts. And, certainly in some cases, a trusted family member can be the trustee with the power to put in place these other directed trustees;

(2)  My general take on these new Georgia directed trust laws is that each team member (that is, each directed trustee) is subject to a fiduciary standard and liable for breach of trust if committed in bad faith or with reckless indifference to the interests of the trust beneficiaries [see, e.g., Georgia O.C.G.A. Section 53-12-303, captioned “Relief of liability”]. In other words, each directed trustee has to act with a fiduciary duty to the trust beneficiaries. This enhances the protective benefit of the team approach;

(3) Elder financial abuse is skyrocketing. For this reason, I strongly recommend families presently develop a relationship with a trusted, competent investment advisor who can help oversee the family’s investment assets. And, as needed, that trusted investment advisor can be, or later become, the family’s directed investment trustee. This advisory oversight, coupled with the above fiduciary duty standard and the now-stricter FINRA rules that address the financial exploitation of seniors, helps provide another team-member set of eyes and ears alert to the threat of financial abuse and fraud, etc.;

(4)  These new Georgia directed trust laws are modeled after UDTA (the “Uniform Directed Trust Act”). These new laws are very dense, and appear well-drafted and comprehensive. But, easy, quick, no-thought, simple reliance on uniform laws can blind the lawyer drafting the trust. Even with these progressive laws, there needs to be artful trust document drafting so as to take advantage of these directed trust provisions, but without leaving unintended gaps or ambiguities in the trust document that cause problems down the road. Of course, artful drafting has always been the case with virtually any trust document.

Subpoenas and the Executive Branch

Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post, captioned “Deju Vu. The 1974 NIXON Subpoena”;  Click here for my earlier post. This post today is merely to restate one of the most interesting, unanswered constitutional law questions that has remained in the forefront of my mind all these years after my earlier days at Emory Law School.

This is not a political blog post, but it does center on how a President can, or might, respond to subpoenas.  Here is this question’s relationship to the 1974 Nixon subpoena.

In short, in 1974 special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, while conducting the Nixon Watergate investigation, obtained a subpoena ordering President Nixon to release certain tapes and papers as to meetings between Nixon and others who had been indicted by a grand jury. Nixon refused. The US Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, concluded Nixon could not rely on executive privilege as immunity from complying with the subpoena. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to turn over the tapes in response to the subpoena. Nixon ultimately agreed to comply with the subpoena.

Here is the constitutional question we discussed (and that hooked me all these years) in my constitutional law school class in response to the Nixon Supreme Court opinion. That is, how would Jaworski’s subpoena have been enforced if Nixon had snubbed the Supreme Court and taken the position he did not have to comply with the subpoena?

Because Nixon’s own executive branch was (and is) the only enforcement branch of government, what would have happened if Nixon did not allow his executive branch to enforce the subpoena? Remember, the judicial and legislative branches have no enforcement capability. Also, you and I would likely be jailed quickly by the executive branch for our failure to comply with a court order.  [Nixon ended up voluntarily complying with the subpoena, without anyone having to deal with its enforcement.]

So, would the military have stepped in to enforce the Nixon subpoena?  Would we have seen military tanks in front of the White House?  Would there be an attempted coup? Would there be vigilante enforcement, etc.? We simply have no answer.

The point of this blog post is to remind each of us of, and elevate, the sanctity and design of our US three-branch system of government. In my view, especially as a lawyer, this three-branch system is the only reason we have been able to maintain our breadth of freedoms and rights against the historical backdrop of disputes, crises, disagreements, differing political and social views, and so forth.

The crucial question, at present, of another potential subpoena stand-off should not focus only on the substance or information of what the subpoena is seeking, but rather on how does the subpoena and its compliance fit with the need of continuing the essential and crucial balance of our three-system government? My imponderable constitutional question still remains unanswered and untested. Let’s keep it that way.

 

Whoops. The No-Contest Clause Backfired!

This blog post is in response to a recent April 2019 California case dealing with disgruntled siblings and an “in terrorem” (or no-contest) clause in their late mother’s revocable trust document.  I use the California case to make the following broader comments for this blog post and tie my comments to a Georgia point.

An in terrorem clause (no-contest clause) in a Will or trust document is to prevent beneficiaries from raising issues as to the Will or trust in order, in most cases, to try and increase their share. The provisions under Georgia law for no-contest clauses are under O.C.G.A. Section 53-4-68 (for Wills) and Section 53-12-22 (for trusts).

An example of a no-contest clause in a Will is:

“If any beneficiary, alone or along with any other person or persons, directly or indirectly, contests or initiates proceedings to contest this Will in any court with a challenge to its validity of all or any part of my Will or in any manner, attacks or seeks to impair or invalidate any of the provisions of my Will or prevent any provision of my Will from being carried out in accordance with its terms, that contesting beneficiary shall be deemed to have predeceased me and as a result shall forfeit his or her interest under this Will in its entirety with his or her forfeited share passing to my other children, per stripes, as though the contesting beneficiary and his or her descendants all predeceased me.”

This blog post is not for the purpose of an extensive discussion about the design and use of a no-contest clause.  But, rather, it helps illustrate that no-contest clauses are not just simply boilerplate provisions that one can, or should, without careful thought merely cut-and-paste into a Will or trust.

Below are a couple broader comments as to no-contest clauses:

I start with reference to a recent 2019 California court opinion dealing with a no-contest clause. This case has an extremely interesting and surprising twist that one of the litigious sisters likely never expected, to her detriment. This case is Key v. Tyler, 2019 Cal. App. LEXIS 358 (April 19, 2019).  Click here for a copy.  The core facts are that three adult sisters are beneficiaries of their deceased parents’ 1999 family trust.  The family trust essentially provides for an equal split among the three sisters after their parents’ deaths. As of January 2006, the family trust was worth over $72 million.  Lawyer-sister Tyler was the trustee.

A 2007 amendment to the 1999 family trust surfaced after the mother’s 2011 death (the mother was the second parent to die). After their mother’s death, sister Key asserted that her lawyer-sister Tyler had unduly influenced their mother in 2007 to amend the 1999 family trust. The 2007 trust amendment was apparently orchestrated by Tyler and resulted in Tyler increasing her own trust share substantially in excess of her other two sisters (including Key). The 1999 family trust and 2007 amendment each included a no-contest clause.

Sister Key, after the mother’s death, filed a California court action and asserted the 2007 trust amendment was the result of undue influence over their mother by lawyer-sister Tyler . The California court agreed with sister Key, with the result that the 2007 trust amendment was essentially disregarded. Although this California opinion is rich with an abundance of procedural details, factors, concepts, and other elements in this sister- v.-sister litigation, I make only the following three comments stemming from this California case (my knowledge of the facts in this case are based solely on information in the court opinion):

One. This point centers on the 1999 family trust and the 2007 trust amendment, each having a no-contest clause.  One might reasonably ask:  With the trust document having a no-contest clause, how was sister Key (the non-lawyer sister) able to attack the 2007 trust amendment, without triggering the clause against herself (Key)?

The reason is that California law, as with some other states (but not Georgia), has an exception to the challenge to a Will or trust with a no-contest clause, if the person making the challenge can show probable cause at the time of filing the challenge, such as probable cause of undue influence, or mental incapacity, etc.

In other words, without probable cause a person cannot simply file a challenge to a no-contest clause Will or trust and hope during the discovery phase of the litigation to luck-up or stumble across evidence of undue influence, or mental incapacity, etc.  Probable cause up front reduces fishing-game litigation. Absent probable cause, the person making the challenge to the Will or trust also risks losing, with the result of being penalized by the no-contest clause.

Two. This next move in this litigation by sister Key is what greatly sparked my interest in this California case.  Here it is:  After sister Key successfully challenged and obtained the set-aside of their mother’s 2007 trust amendment, Key then filed a petition to enforce — against her lawyer-sister Tyler — the no-contest clause as to the 1999 family trust. This is the backfire.

Here the reader might say “Wait a minute, it was sister Key who challenged the 2007 trust amendment.  Lawyer-sister Tyler never asserted any challenge.  So, why now is lawyer-sister Tyler facing loss of her inheritance based on her (Tyler’s) violation of the no-contest clause? “

There are two primary reasons.  First, the California court concluded sister Key had sufficient probable cause of undue influence to file her challenge to the 2007 amendment, even with the no-contest clause.  The probable cause exception under California law provided an exception for Key to the trust amendment’s no-contest clause.  Second, and this is the part of the California court opinion that really grabs my interest.  The court, in concluding sister Key can seek to enforce the no-contest clause against Tyler, states:

“By [lawyer-sister] Tyler obtaining the 2007 Amendment through undue influence and then defending that amendment in court, Tyler sought to ‘impair’ and ‘invalidate’ the provisions of the original Trust that the 2007 Amendment purported to replace.  The No-Contest Clause therefore disinherits Tyler if it is enforceable against her.”

2019 Cal. App. LEXIS, *29.

I assume lawyer-sister Tyler was completely blindsided by now finding herself the subject of a possible no-contest clause violation, and never for a moment considered that her court fight as trustee to defend and uphold the 2007 trust amendment would (or could) be the basis of Tyler herself violating the no-contest clause. Tyler now stands to lose her share of the trust if the court ultimately concludes Tyler violated the no-contest clause [the court has not yet arrived at a conclusion].

Three. This final point ties my Georgia discussion to the above California case. Georgia does not have a probable cause exception that allows a beneficiary with probable cause to challenge a no-contest clause Will or trust. My view is that Georgia (and all other states) needs a probable cause exception.  This is up to the legislature.

Here also is my concern, merely as an example, of there being no probable cause exception in Georgia.  Assume a family friend, business associate, or even a lawyer, becomes a close friend of an elderly widow or widower.  And that person persuades the elderly person to change his or her Will to include him or her as a substantial beneficiary (or gets the elderly person to add his or her church or other charitable institution as a substantial beneficiary). Assume also that person persuades the elderly person to include a strong, no-contest clause in their Will or trust.

This could be a tragedy and, in my view, would prevent another beneficiary or family member from challenging a Will or trust that now benefits the family friend, business associate, or lawyer, even if the challenging beneficiary has probable cause. The person influencing the elderly person, therefore, shields himself or herself by influencing the person to include the no-contest clause.

My final general point is to make sure you know what documents your elderly parents have in place, and whether they are making changes, influenced by others, etc. Don’t end up with no options to challenge their situation where someone influences your parents to include him or her in the Will or trust, and also influences your parents to include a strong no-contest clause.  This person may likely end up with your inheritance,  unscathed.

One last comment for readers who wish to read the attached California court opinion.  That is, the court opinion provides a great deal of discussion about this California sister case being a SLAPP case [“Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation”]. SLAPP is essentially a procedural speed-up option available for certain litigation cases, that I also find is an extremely interesting, evolving court development.  I will write a blog post soon about what SLAPP is and why I find it a compelling and positive development in litigation.  [California has a much broader range of SLAPP options compared to Georgia.]

Don’t Let Your Kids Get Caught in a Bureaucratic Snare this Summer

The extent to which we all have to jump through more hoops in life has expanded substantially over the past 15 years or so. You can easily test this idea by trying to use a financial power of attorney document at a financial institution, or better yet try to deal with someone’s IRA account using a power of attorney. Or, what if your child has to be hospitalized while out of town without you? Try to deal expediently with the HIPAA medical confidentiality rules, etc.

This post includes a sample “John Doe” authorization document (referring to Georgia law) for minor children who might travel this summer (or stay with relatives or friends) without their parents immediately at hand.  Click here for the sample pdf document. The hope, of course, is that no situations develop that require this document. But, taking a few minutes now to put the document in place could potentially help you and keep your away-from-home children from being caught in a snare (that you could have helped prevent).

The legal ethics rules require that I inform you that my blog is for marketing purposes and readers cannot rely on this blog post, nor on the pdf sample document, as legal advice from me or KaneTreadwell Law.   I recommend strongly you consult a lawyer for assistance with this pdf document if you wish to put it in place for your particular situation.

Here also is one of my previous blog posts on planning for our age-18 and over children, especially those off at college.  Click here.

Have a great summer.

I Revamped My View on Core Estate Planning

I try persistently in all aspects of my life and lawyering to test and challenge my assumptions and ideas.  Particularly in my law practice, I am open to self-criticism in order to expand my ideas and effectiveness as a lawyer.  I know fairly accurately what I do well;  I am more interested in learning and pondering what I do not do well, or what areas of change or improvement might work better for my clients, etc.

I spent years in the large law firm environment providing complex, trust-design planning for clients. I commented often at that time that putting clients in the most complex estate planning was easier than discerning more specifically what the particular client might not need. It was proper (and easier) in many cases to recommend for a wealthier client the broadest range of planning options, with much less need to stop, consider, and pick-and-choose, what might not be needed for the client. These are clients typically in the top 5-percent of net-worth, etc.

And for these wealthier clients, there were (and are) tax and non-tax benefits of placing those clients in the most complex planning available, including lifetime trusts, full GST (generation skipping planning, etc.), QTIP marital trusts, reverse QTIP trusts, defective grantor trusts, etc.

However, for the bulk of other clients not in the top 5-percent range, I now do not believe simply applying the all-complex approach is suitable. Furthermore, the more complex planning brings with it comparably more responsibility for the client to make sure he or she has named suitable advisors who will carry out the complex planning, including particularly the experience, skill, competency and trust of the named trustees, etc.

Bottom line, in all cases I do not recommend lifetime trusts for a client’s children when both parents die, unless there are specific circumstances that warrant the extended trust planning. What I recommend in many cases are lifetime trusts for the parents with thereafter an outright distribution to the children at age 30, but with the parents’ estate planning documents including — if later necessary — the power to make distributions in further (continuing) trust at the second parent’s death.

This later-trust feature provides an option to establish extended trusts for the children at that later time, if a child is under threat of divorce, lawsuit judgments, failed businesses, personal guarantee issues, etc. The key point is this trust decision can be made at that later time.

This later-trust feature also gives the children the responsibility of their own estate planning upon the death of their parents depending on the circumstances at that time. I, as a parent, believe that giving our children the power of independence and autonomy is a gift that goes well beyond a dollar valuation.

This simpler approach, however, of not using lifetime trusts for children does not eliminate a client’s need to review and consider the use of advisors and the naming of trustees.  Some of us also have personalities that result in a “I can do it all myself” perspective that can cut against a more open mind to the selection and use of advisors / trustees.

Why, if I speak above about a simpler approach to estate planning, do I suggest the selection and use of advisors / trustees?  The reason for each of us, whether later as a result of age-related disabilities or death, ultimately will not be able to “do it all” ourselves as to the functions where advisors / trustees can be significantly helpful. This ultimate need for assistance from others will arise regardless of the complexity, simplicity, or absence of our estate planning.

As to the selection of advisors, there are an abundance of individuals (attorneys, accountants, investment advisors) who, frankly, are not that good at their work. In my opinion, they are more focused on making the sale rather than on their services. There also are advisors, in my view, who are smart, but at the same time, to put it bluntly, stupid. These are not mutually exclusive terms.

And, although the question of trustee selection often centers on the naming of successor trustees who will step in later (if necessary), I strongly suggest that clients (e.g., parents) begin today developing relationships with both advisors and trustees. Begin observing now an ongoing demonstration of an advisor or trustee’s competence and trustworthiness.

Of immediate importance for this client advisor-review process are investment advisors and CPAs.  Lawyer  relationships are also important;  but for most clients the hope is they will use a lawyer only sporadically.  By contrast, the ongoing threat of investment losses and schemes (e.g., Madoff scams, elder financial abuse), in my view, can wreck a family.  Having someone you trust to help oversee your investments is essential. CPAs are also crucial in helping to avoid costly, cumulative tax return and compliance problems.

What Powerful Writing; I Just Read “Ulysses” by James Joyce

I enjoy my lawyer world in which words are extremely versatile, powerful, and often play out on the tipping scale of success or failure (both in litigation and non-litigation).

Compare, as a simple example, the two sentences: “The respondent’s assertions frustrate the permissive mandate of Code Section 2056″ versus “The respondent’s assertions obstruct the permissive mandate of Code Section 2056.”  I am not suggesting one sentence singled out alone necessarily makes a difference;  but the greater weight of an abundance of words used effectively in persuasive writing can, in my view, greatly help move the reader both intellectually and emotionally in your desired direction. Stop for a moment and ponder your own reaction to the above “frustrate” versus “obstruct” distinction, and how the words shade the nuance and impact of the sentence.

I also enjoy reading for pleasure and often react with virtual awe in response to certain writers’ use of words and language.  My recent reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses has stunned me with its powerful effect.  I don’t think “stunned” is an overstatement. I have had Ulysses on my tentative reading list for years;  but kept putting it off. I was aware from hearing and reading comments from others that Ulysses would not be an easy task to complete.  It was not easy.

For this brief blog post, I attempt below to state why I reacted so favorably to Ulysses. But, and this next point sounds like new-age mumble-jumble, my attempt below to express these reasons falls way short of my overall joy and reaction to Ulysses. Also, I fully admit I am no scholar or expert on Ulysses or James Joyce. I am merely a reader. One other preface point I make here is that the entire Ulysses novel takes place only within one day:  June 16, 1904, in Dublin.

Here are my eight brief points:

One. This also sounds new-age; but as I was reading Ulysses, and now after finishing it, I find myself in a kind of foggy, joyful awe. I tell my friends that Ulysses is a miraculous work. It has powerfully affected me in a way that I believe is a permanent, positive change.

Two.  This positive change is that Joyce, by depicting in Ulysses only one day in the life of his characters — June 16, 1904 — describes that life in a way that makes me now more aware of appreciating, and continuing to ponder, the vast richness that our daily lives make available to us. Each day is a tremendous event in life that, if we are attuned to life, has a depth and richness we tend to forget when we persistently ponder yesterday and tomorrow.

My above comment also is not along the line that we should be grateful for each day.  There is nothing necessarily wrong about the platitude of being grateful, but that is not my point. Rather, each day has its own richness and fullness that can contribute to our joyful experience of life, regardless of whether the day might appear quite mundane on its surface.

Three.  The way in which Joyce displays this one June 16th day is the miracle. To preface my point here, think for a moment about what happens when you attend a dinner party.

Sure, there are various objective visual and auditory activities going on around you. The plates and forks are clinking with a steady drone. The new Lady Gaga / Bradley Cooper music is loud. The speakers don’t have as much bass as you like. You hear the kids’ TV in the other room. Susan is drinking from her new wine glasses; John is ranting about some recent political event; Mary looks older and tired as though she possibly had a long sleepless night with her new baby, etc. The sauce has a too-strong butter odor. The napkins are too thick and too rough. The lighting is very pleasant.

But, in addition to these objective / auditory activities, we persistently have a lot of other stuff going on at the same time, such as our own internal dialogue; our self-talk; mental perceptions, unspoken criticisms, judgments and thoughts about what we are seeing and hearing; our interspersed dream-like visual imagery and sounds about the past and the future; our fantasy-day dreams connected at times to what we are seeing within our surroundings (that can veer off in any number of directions, with sudden starts, stops, changes in direction, etc.).

What Joyce does in Ulysses is capture all of the above in the one-day June 16 context of his characters. I am almost certain I will again be able to read other fiction; but, as of now, Joyce presented this Ulysses novel in what I believe is the fullest, most accurate and realistic depiction of our external and internal, meandering lives.  Other fiction I will later read, I anticipate, might seem too one dimensional.  I feel as though Joyce spoiled me for other novels.

Four.  I admit I almost quit reading Ulysses at about the half-way mark. But, many readers who had already made the journey (that I found on Google book sites) recommended readers stick with the book to its end. It will be worth it, they all said.  I almost quit because briefly I felt (prematurely) like the novel was not headed in a direction that struck me;  no story;  no plot.  I could not keep up with all the details.  But, then, almost by an imperceptible degree, I began having a great feeling in general about life and about the characters in Ulysses.  Simple, daily life.  I told my wife that this feeling hit me about half-way through the book, and has stayed with me ever since.

Five.  Go back to the dinner party example above. There is a lot of stuff going on externally and internally. There is no way you can fully take all of it in. You will listen and observe only some of the external and internal stimuli. At most any dinner party you will not pay close attention to some of the activity. It is impossible to take it all in. You and the other dinner party guests will tune into some subjects and comments; you also effectively will simply let other items go by with a bare hearing or perception of the content.

Because Ulysses includes a similar vast litany of external and internal stimuli during the course of one single day, don’t expect that you will take in or be perceptive to each and every detail you read.  Rather, take it in as you would at the above dinner party.  Some items will stand out during your reading; some will not.  This is how life runs its course; in this case life on June 16, 1904. Straining to retain and digest every facet of Ulysses will ruin the reading experience. You do not need to retain and digest every facet of the day in Ulysses.

Six.  Joyce is a master with words. His writing and crafting of Ulysses strikes me as pure genius. If I had to recommend to someone a portion of Ulysses merely as one small sample of Joyce’s fine writing, it might be the start of the beach scene in Chapter 13. The intro section stopped me in my tracks. The writing is so good that I had to return and reread the opening section of Chapter 13 twice before I could move on to the end of the chapter. Click here for a Google link to Chapter 13.

Seven.  At the halfway point of reading the hard copy of Ulysses, I purchased the audible.com audio version. I continued to read some hard-copy portions, but also used this great audio version. The audio narration is superlative. Click here for this audible.com version of Ulysses. I also googled Cliff Notes for a couple of the chapters that gave me a good background understanding of those particularly difficult chapters. Three or so of the chapters I reread twice before moving on due to the powerful, weighty effect those chapters had on me.

Eight.  Reading Ulysses is worth it. I am more than delighted I completed this laborious reading journey.  My life (again, this sounds new-age-like) has been permanently changed for the better, and I have a much greater appreciation for the miraculous nuance of each single day.

The 2017 Gibson Opinion. Divorce? Squirreling Away Assets in Trust?

This blog post is about whether the 2017 Georgia Supreme Court opinion in Gibson now opens the door wider for one spouse more easily – while married — to squirrel away his or her assets in a trust, and then later use that trust as a shield in a divorce proceeding. It does not.

In Gibson,the husband during his marriage funded two trusts with $3.2 million of property; the husband prevailed in keeping the $3.2 million out of his divorce proceeding without the trust assets being subject to equitable division. This is $3.2 million that otherwise would likely have been marital property in the divorce, absent the trust planning. Click here for a copy of Gibson v. Gibson, 801 S.E.2d 40, 301 Ga. 622 (2017).

The key factual distinction laying the foundation for the husband to prevail in Gibson was the lower trial court’s conclusion that the husband retained no interest in the trusts, including no interest as a trustee or beneficiary.  As I touch on again below, my experience is that most spouses who unilaterally create and fund a trust during marriage do retain interests in the trust, albeit as part of the purposeful, stealth design of certain opaque, highly-technical trust provisions.

Back to the Gibson opinion. My sense in talking with other lawyers is that some have an over-optimism leading them to conclude Gibson opens the door wider now enabling one spouse to keep his or her trust out of the divorce arena. For the reasons I state below, I disagree. The backdrop to this misplaced optimism is the following portion of the Gibson opinion:

This is not an issue of first impression for our Court, which has permitted property placed in certain types of trusts to be exempt from equitable division.  . .  . Therefore, property that has been conveyed to a third party is not subject to equitable division absent a showing of fraudulent transfer. See id. If a spouse places property in a trust of which he is the sole beneficiary, that property may be subject to equitable division. See Speed v. Speed , 263 Ga. 166, 430 S.E.2d 348 (1993). But if a spouse is not the sole beneficiary of a trust, the corpus of the trust is not subject to the other spouse’s claim of distribution. See McGinn v. McGinn, 273 Ga. 292, 292, 540 S.E.2d 604 (2001).

Excerpt from the Gibson opinion (I added the bolding and underlining).

The optimists read Gibson (and the “sole beneficiary” excerpt above) to support the notion that a spouse who funds a trust – where that spouse is not a sole beneficiary of the trust –  can now exclude the trust from claims in a divorce. This is a misreading of the above Gibson reference to sole beneficiary.

This sole beneficiary reference is merely a passing remark by the Georgia Supreme Court (what lawyers call obiter dictum) in stating the Gibson case was not a case of first impression on the question of how a trust created during marriage fares later in a divorce action. This sole beneficiary element also was not a fact for consideration as to the Gibson husband’s trusts and not part of the holding in Gibson.  [I have not seen the Gibson trust documents.]

Here are my broader Gibson points for this blog post:

One. I am called upon from time to time to assist divorce lawyers with attacking a trust in a divorce proceeding. My job is to help attack the trust and keep it in the divorce proceeding. My attack at times is directed at the deficiency and shortcomings in the trust document itself, where the drafter failed to cross the “t”s and dot the “i”s. My attack also gets into the various quasi-hidden, stealth trust powers purposely built into the design and framework of the trust that do not easily – merely on the face of the trust document – alert a non-trust lawyer to the existence of continuing powers and potential benefits the spouse retained in the trust (such as powers of appointment held by a friend or other family member; powers to decant the trust to another trust; using someone other than the spouse as the purported settlor of the trust document giving the diversionary appearance the spouse did not create the trust, etc.).

One might ask “Why would a spouse hold these stealth ties to the trust?” The answer, in my experience, is that it is a rare instance where one spouse creates and funds a trust during marriage without making sure he or she still possesses indirect options either to get back the property after the divorce situation ends or ultimately later control the property for that spouse’s own benefit.  Thus, arguably most unilateral trusts are not third-party trusts.  I use the term unilateral for when one spouse puts this trust planning in place without the knowledge of the other spouse.

Two. Whether a trust is or is not a third-party trust is not merely an easy simple ‘yes’ / ‘no’ question. The status and nature of any trust depends in most cases (divorce and non-divorce cases) on the effect of the opaque, stealth technical provisions in the trust document, as part of the purposeful design of the trust. This opaque-stealth question, in my opinion, is where the heart of the fight lies when dealing with a trust in a divorce setting.

Three.  When the trust at issue in a divorce is a third party trust (as in Gibson), that trust under the Gibson opinion will still be subject to a fraudulent transfer analysis in the divorce proceeding, as is the case with virtually any other third-party transfer of property prior to divorce.

The procedural rub is that the law requires, as generally in any fraudulent transfer attack, that the opposing party (the non-trust spouse in a divorce) bears the burden of proof for the fraudulent transfer attack.

Four. But, by contrast, I read Gibson as not changing the existing law or theories in divorce proceedings for trusts that are not third-party trusts. Those trusts are still subject to attack, but without the non-trust spouse bearing the burden of proof under a fraudulent transfer attack.  Here the burden is on the spouse who created the trust — during the marriage – to prove the trust is not marital property.