January 13, 2012

Modifying an Irrevocable Trust

The Berkeley Court handles probate matters in Alameda County

Though the name suggests otherwise, an irrevocable trust can be modified through a number of ways. A previous post discusses how to amend a revocable trust. The following are permitted methods to change a California irrevocable trust. Most of the methods do require court approval.

1.  All trust beneficiaries consent. Prob C §15403.

This method is generally allowed provided that neither of the following apply (1) "the continuance of the trust is necessary to carry out a material purpose of the trust, the trust cannot be modified or terminated unless the court, in its discretion, determines that the reason for doing so under the circumstances outweighs the interest in accomplishing a material purpose of the trust.the modification will not" or (2) the trust contains a spendthrift clause.

If neither (1) or (2) apply, the beneficiaries can petition the appropriate probate court for modification. 

One of the problems with this method is that sometimes beneficiaries do not live in the same area or there are beneficiaries that are minors or unborn. Thus, obtaining the consent of all beneficiaries can be a challenge.

2. All trust beneficiaries and the settlor consent. Prob C §15404(a)

Generally speaking, no court order is needed for this method. 

3. At least one beneficiary and the settlor consent. Prob C §15404(b)

This method is allowed provided that the interests of the non-consenting beneficiary or beneficiaries is not substantially impaired.

4. Principal is uneconomically low. Prob C §15408

Following the submission of a petition to the court, if it "determines that the fair market value of the principal of a trust has become so low in relation to the cost of administration that continuation of the trust under its existing terms will defeat or substantially impair the accomplishment of its purposes," modification is permitted.

Or, if the trust principal is $40,000 or less, the trustee is empowered to terminate the trust immediately.

5. Changed circumstances. Prob C §15409

This is most common with charitable trusts as a settlor might name a charity as a trust beneficiary but the charity merges with another charity or dissolves prior to death. For example, assume that Samuel Settlor designates an animal shelter in Los Altos, CA as the sole trust beneficiary. Prior to Samuel's death, the animal shelter dissolves for lack of funds to operate and donates its remaining assets to the animal shelter in Mountain View, CA. Upon Samuel's death, the Mountain View animal shelter would petition the probate court to modify the trust whereby it would become the trust beneficiary because of its connection to the Los Altos animal shelter. 

The legal term for substituting one charity for another to fulfill the settlor's intent in a trust modification case is called "cy pres." Try to incorporate that term into your conversations to either (1) impress your friends, co-workers or family (2) confuse them or (3) raise their ire by using legal jargon in an every day conversation.  

6. Conform the trust to tax laws. Probate Code §§21520-21526

Since a principal reason to write a trust is consideration of tax laws, a trust can be modified to achieve the tax objective the trust was intended to fulfill.