Irrevocable trusts aren’t as irrevocable as their name implies, according to Barron’s recent article, “Are Irrevocable Trusts True to Their Name?” The article says that, for both new and existing trusts, there are ways to build in flexibility to make changes to a grantor’s wishes, if terms are no longer appropriate or desirable for beneficiaries.
However, there are strict rules that apply. These rules vary between states. One of the main reasons for an irrevocable trust, is to remove assets from an estate for estate tax purposes. If the rules aren’t followed carefully, a trust can be rendered unlawful. If that happens, the assets may be returned to the grantor’s estate and estate taxes may apply.
If you want to be certain that beneficiaries have some discretion in the future if circumstances change, grantors should build flexibility into the trust when it’s established. This can be accomplished by giving a power of appointment to beneficiaries. However, if the beneficiaries are looking to change the terms or the structure of an existing trust, the trust must be modified, according to state law.
Most states allow trusts to be decanted. When you decant a trust, you pour its terms into a new trust, and leave out the parts that are no longer wanted. Just like decanting a bottle of wine, it’s like the sediment left in the wine bottle.
In a state that doesn’t permit decanting, a trustee can ask a judge to allow it. You should be careful with decanting, because you don’t want to do anything that would adversely affect the original tax attributes of the trust.
The power of appointment in a trust or the ability to decant can’t be given to the person who set up the trust. Thus, grantors can’t have a “re-do” or rescind the terms. It’s only trustees and the beneficiaries that can do that.
If you and your attorney create a trust with a lot of flexibility for the trustee, you may want to appoint an institutional trustee from a bank, trust, or other financial services company.
They can be either the sole trustee or serve as co-trustees with a personal, non-institutional trustee, like a family member. This can help to eliminate future conflicts.
Reference: Barron’s (June 18, 2019) “Are Irrevocable Trusts True to Their Name?”