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.

I Am Proud of Georgia (trust / estate law revisions)

Georgia’s newly enacted revisions to certain trust and estate law provisions bring Georgia up to speed with many other states with similar provisions.  The changes are effective July 1, 2018.  This is a good move for Georgia.  Click here for a link to the legislative bill with the numerous changes.

As an important first aside, I will blog later on how these changes add even greater benefit to my favorite trust – the inter-vivos QTIP marital trust (created during the lifetime of the spouses).  I also will provide other short blog posts from time to time with certain commentary about these law changes.

For today’s post, I include the following discussion about how long trusts can now last under Georgia law:

360-Year Trusts. The allowable duration for a trust changes from 90 years to 360 years.  This is referred to under trust law as the “rule of perpetuities”, and applies generally as a duration limitation for non-charitable trusts.  A trust can now operate for 360 years before the rule of perpetuities law mandates its termination.

However, as a practical matter, I do not think 360 years in and of itself is significant. But, now having a period longer than the previous 90-year limitation helps make sure a trust can run long enough to cover (at a minimum) the trust creator’s (settlor’s) grandchildren’s entire lives.

In other words, making sure the grandchildren get the asset protection benefit of the continuing trust for their entire lifetimes (rather than the trust having to terminate in 90 years, possibly before the deaths of the grandchildren; thus, the earlier termination removing the protective effect of the trust set-up for their benefit).

The reason I think the entire 360-year period is not significant is that the number of downstream descendants a settlor will have if his or her trust lasts 360 years will be geometrically expanded beyond anyone’s realistic ability to keep up with all the descendants. I have seen various projections indicating, on average for example, a person will have approximately 115,000 descendants in 350 years. This adds another level to the notion of “laughing heirs”.

The Delaware Tax Trap.  This point relates to the new 360-year change.  The Delaware Tax Trap is a complex part of trust tax law.  It essentially triggers potentially punitive gift and GST tax results if a trust is changed where the duration of the trust is extended longer than the trust’s initial governing rule of perpetuities.

For example, assume I created an irrevocable trust in 1980 (when the law allowed a 90-year duration which means the trust essentially must end in 2070).  Is this trust now subject to the Georgia 360-year rule?  [There are some extensions to this 90-year period that get into the notion of “lives in being”; but I do not get into that point for this blog. You also can read one of my earlier blog posts on a creative potential use of the Delaware Tax Trap.  Click here for my earlier post.]

Under this Delaware Tax Trap rule, the tax law provides that if I extend the duration of my existing 1980 trust beyond its then-applicable 90-year period, the result is that I am deemed for gift and GST tax purposes to have withdrawn the trust property and re-contributed the property to the extended-duration trust.  In other words, I am treated as making a gift to the extended trust. This Delaware Tax Trap is a very esoteric tax law concept as a practical matter, but is an issue that most trust tax lawyers have many times grappled with (and debated) in great detail as part of their trust planning.

Below is my key comment for this blog post about Georgia and the Delaware Tax Trap.

The legislative act for these Georgia revisions to its trust and estate laws states “All laws and parts of laws in conflict with this Act are repealed.” Does this mean the prior 90-year limitation disappears with no continuing effect for an existing trust?

I am merely raising the above question and have not yet fully examined the scope of an answer.  Nor does a simple, quick answer jump out at me at this time.  More broadly, the question becomes: “How best do trust lawyers deal with this new extended 360-year rule of perpetuities both for existing trusts and in creating new trusts?”

This 360-year rule of perpetuities question needs to be on every trust checklist.

Death in the Midst of a Divorce. What Happens?

Ever think about what happens if you die in the midst of your divorce?   How does that affect the divorce action, alimony, and property division?  Here in short are the resulting possibilities:

(1)  Generally no divorce can occur if one spouse dies prior to the court’s judgment of divorce.  In this situation the spouses are still married post-death;

(2)  However, pending alimony claims at the time of death do not bar the surviving spouse from seeking temporary alimony or support from the estate of the deceased spouse, but only computed for any time period ending up to the date of the deceased spouse’s death.   In other words, no alimony computed and payable for the time period following the death;

(3) Any other post-death property or benefits for the surviving spouse will be based on (i)  the estate planning documents the deceased spouse had in place for the surviving spouse;  and (ii) the statutory surviving spouse provisions (called years’ support under Georgia law;  see O.C.G.A. Section 53-3-1).   These become the post-death claims against the estate for the surviving spouse rather than post-death alimony or property division;

(4) As to the deceased spouse’s estate planning documents, in this situation the surviving spouse is still technically married to the deceased spouse.  Therefore, the deceased spouse’s estate planning documents — to the extent they include benefits or provisions for the surviving spouse — will most likely still apply; and

(5) For couples with a prenuptial agreement, the agreement needs to contemplate the above situation if death occurs mid-stream in the divorce proceeding.   In my experience many prenuptial agreements do not adequately anticipate this situation.

Essentially, the prenuptial agreement needs to provide that if the required payment or division is required under the prenuptial agreement, then both spouses agree under the terms of the prenuptial agreement that they each will be deemed to have predeceased the other so that no other estate planning documents apply.   In other words the prenuptial agreement needs to anticipate and guard against both the prenuptial agreement and the other estate planning documents applying together.   It should be one or the other.

Narrowing this point further.   The prenuptial agreement may provide for its required payment or division of property under the terms of the agreement even if death occurs during the divorce proceeding (triggered, for example by the filing of the divorce action by one of the spouses).   This is fine as long as the agreement is clear on this point.

But, under all circumstance to avoid double payment under the prenuptial agreement and the deceased spouse’s estate planning documents, the following example of a provision in the prenuptial agreement can mandate the above either-or result:

9.1.1.   If the payment is required between the parties under subparagraph 7.1.1 [of this prenuptial agreement], both John and Jane shall as a result of such payment obligation be deemed to have predeceased one another as of the date of the death of either one of them with the result that John and Jane shall each be treated as having  predeceased one another for all other purposes (including predeceased for all purposes as to any estate planning documents of either John or Jane applicable at their respective deaths).

For Georgia readers, and as general background, the following case deals with this topic:  Davenport v. Davenport, 255 S.E.2d 695, 243 Ga. 613 (Ga., 1979).