What Is a Trust Protector and Do I Need One? A Primer on This Useful Trust Planning Tool

Whittier Trust Protector

Imagine this: You’re at a cocktail party talking about investing and estate planning and someone mentions naming their closest friend as the “trust protector” for their kids’ trust. What are they talking about?

Trust protectors have long been used by jurisdictions outside of the United States as a mechanism to provide oversight of corporate trustees and hence, a measure of family control over trusts in general. Still confused? Here’s what you need to know.

In a typical irrevocable trust arrangement, assets are gifted to family members by transferring legal title to the assets in the name of a trustee who is held to the terms of a written document (the trust agreement). There are many benefits to trusts and trust services including professional management of assets, asset protection, and sometimes even gift and estate tax advantages. Families often like the idea of using trusts in wealth transfer planning but struggle with the question of who to name as the trustee.

Naming a family member provides comfort that the beneficiary’s needs will be met by someone close to them, but a suitable family member may not always be available. Certain family relationships don’t lend themselves to a trustee/beneficiary relationship. Siblings of the beneficiary are a poor choice because the relationship dynamics may be negatively impacted. More distant relatives don’t always have the same level of contact that someone closer to the beneficiary might. The role of trustee comes along with a tremendous amount of legal liability for investments and recordkeeping which can deter even the most suitable of family members from serving in this capacity.

A professional trustee who is neutral and in the business of serving in a fiduciary capacity is frequently the best choice. Professional trustees come in two general categories — professional private fiduciaries and corporate trustees. Professional private fiduciaries are individuals with experience and training in trust services and administration. They may be located close to where the beneficiary lives and have the ability to interact frequently. However, they may not have additional skills in asset management and tax compliance. Many professional private fiduciaries are sole practitioners, so it will be incumbent upon the family to decide how successor trustees are to be selected.

Corporate trustees are either trust companies or the trust divisions of large commercial banks and brokerage firms. They have staff trained in trust services and administration and usually possess investment and tax expertise. Continuity isn’t an issue since the ability of the corporation to serve as trustee is not dependent upon a single individual. The risk often associated with corporate trustees involves possible mergers, impersonal service, and staff turnover.

If a family leans towards selecting a corporate trustee, how do they ensure the best possible service and advice? Enter the role of “trust protector.” A trust protector is an individual apart from the trustee but to whom the grantor gives certain powers. The most common power given to the trust protector is the power to “remove and replace” the trustee. This allows an individual, perhaps even a family member, to watch over the corporate trustee to make sure the grantor’s wishes are properly fulfilled.

The trust protector’s scope of duties may be expanded to include oversight or even direct management of specific assets, for example, a closely held business. Sometimes, a trust protector will be given an advisory role with respect to distributions. In such cases, the trustee may consult with the trust protector when a beneficiary requests extraordinary distributions from the trust. Another common power is the ability to move the governing law of the trust to another state (or “situs”) of the trust administration for income tax or other reasons. The trust protector’s powers may be held in either a fiduciary or non-fiduciary capacity. This is a matter to discuss with a qualified estate planning attorney since there are potential legal and tax ramifications.

When making a gift into an irrevocable trust, the grantor usually intends that the assets be removed from his or her estate for gift and estate tax purposes. For this reason, it is important for a trust protector to be independent of the grantor. Having said that, the role of trust protector is often a better role for a family member or close family friend than being a trustee.

For families seeking to use trusts in generational wealth transfers, it’s worth asking their lawyers and wealth management advisors about the advisability of naming a trust protector.

Do you have questions about whether naming a trust protector is right for you or want to discuss how Whittier Trust’s wealth management services can help you navigate maximizing your legacy for future generations? We’re here to help. Learn more at www.whittiertrust.com or start the conversation by emailing us at [email protected].