March 28, 2024

Trust Modification - Haggerty v. Thornton

A common question posed by estate planning clients is how to appropriately amend their trust. Practically every trust will specify how to amend the trust, e.g. through a signed writing, through a signed writing acknowledged before a notary public, etc. 

A recent California Supreme Court case addressed the issue of how to validly modify a trust.

"It is undisputed that if the trust instrument is silent on modification, the trust may be modified in the same manner in which it could be revoked, either via the statutory method or via any revocation method provided in the trust instrument. In this case, we consider the circumstances under which the statutory method is available for modification if the trust instrument specifies a method for modification."

"Brianna McKee Haggerty appeals an order of the probate court finding a trust agreement was validly amended, thereby excluding her from distribution. Haggerty's aunt, Jeane M. Bertsch, created a trust in 2015. The trust agreement included a provision reserving "[t]he right by an acknowledged instrument in writing to revoke or amend this Agreement or any trust hereunder." In 2016, Bertsch drafted an amendment providing for a distribution to Haggerty. The amendment was signed by Bertsch and notarized."

"In 2018, Bertsch drafted an amendment providing that half of her assets would go to various beneficiaries upon her death, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, Patricia Galligan, and Racquel Kolsrud, who are respondents in this case. Haggerty was not listed as one of the beneficiaries. The 2018 amendment was signed by Bertsch but not notarized. Thus, the 2018 amendment was compliant with the statutory method but not with the method of modification specified in the trust instrument."

"After Bertsch's death, Haggerty filed a petition to determine the validity of the 2018 amendment. Haggerty argued that the amendment does not qualify as an "acknowledged instrument" because it was not notarized and therefore was not modified pursuant to the method of modification specified in the trust instrument. In a minute order, the probate court held that the 2018 amendment was valid."

The California Supreme Court held that "under section 15402, a trust may be modified via the section 15401 procedures for revocation, including the statutory method, unless the trust instrument provides a method of modification and explicitly makes it exclusive, or otherwise expressly precludes the use of revocation procedures for modification." 

Haggerty v. Thornton S271483 (Feb 08, 2024)