Alternatives to Guardianships for Minors: Section 867 Trusts

In many cases, the Court’s creation of a guardianship of the estate for an incapacitated individual or a minor may be inevitable. It may be the least restrictive option for the Court. However, many times I am approached by clients for whom there are lesser-restrictive and more efficient mechanisms or processes that can achieve many of the same goals.

When faced with the situation that a minor child is supposed to inherit some money from a parent or grandparent, the Courts cannot allow the minor to receive the property outright. Likewise, the law does not allow a parent to collect the money on their behalf without some formal procedure like a guardianship.

Take, for example, a father’s $50,000.00 life insurance policy naming his minor child as the sole beneficiary. The surviving parent wants to collect the funds owed to the child so that they can be used for the ordinary expenses of raising the minor, or perhaps the funds will be tucked away for college. In either event, the mother wants to collect the funds, and the insurance company wants to pay them but cannot pay the minor child directly. As par for the course, the insurer usually demands that a guardianship be created. They don’t want to be liable to the child by delivering the funds to the mother without some kind of security that the mother will be accountable for the funds. Guardianship of the minor’s estate seems like the best choice, if not the only one. But is it?

As with most attorney answers – it depends. The mother could request that the Court appoint her as the Guardian of the minor’s Estate. But this choice often comes with some significant downside. The mother would need to post a bond for the policy proceeds, and the proceeds will be reduced by the fees and expenses of creating the guardianship. Moreover, the guardianship must be maintained, which means that additional expenses will be incurred annually until the child turns 18. Again, the proceeds would be reduced, sometimes significantly, over time. The overall process might be inefficient and challenging, if not impossible under certain circumstances.

One alternative available to the mother might be a trust created by the Court under Section 867 of the Texas Probate Code. Under this law, a financial institution, and sometimes a person, can be appointed by the Court to act as Trustee of a trust created by the Court for the benefit of the minor. The trust comes equipped with very specialized terms that permit the Trustee to collect the insurance proceeds and use them for the benefit of the minor until anywhere from the age of 18 to 25. Every year, the Trustee reports to the Court and accounts for the trust’s activities.

Often, such an alternative can be achieved relatively quickly and with significantly lower cost. The insurance company is happy to pay a bank or person who will be accountable for the funds, and the mother is happy that the funds will be available for the same purpose for which they were intended by the deceased father.

Sometimes, guardianship is not just the best choice, but the only one. But, alternatives such as the Section 867 Trusts are prime examples of the legislature working for our citizens to provide reasoned answers to questions and issues that affect more people every day. In the areas of guardianship and probate, there may be a number of achievable alternatives that provide the same, if not better, results for the client, at lower cost and with greater overall benefit.

Powers of Attorney

Even the most basic estate planning counseling will often involve some discussion with clients about powers of attorney, their effect, limitations and the consequences of certain decisions. In nearly every case, these documents can be perfectly effective mechanisms permitting someone to make important decisions for the client at a time when they are no longer able. At the same time, many of our clients are surprised to learn that these simple documents can carry with them some very important legal consequences.

Generally speaking, there are two types of powers of attorney used in Texas – those that cover decisions of a medical nature, and those that cover non-medical decisions, such as decisions regarding property. Today, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some facets of the latter in a bit more detail.

Although the document itself may come with any of a variety of titles, a commonly used non-medical power of attorney is the Statutory Durable Power of Attorney. The document, depending on the wishes of the client, might become effective immediately, or may become effective only on the occurrence of a future event, such as the client’s (or principal’s) incapacity.

Many clients view the document simply as one of convenience, and they can, in fact, be very convenient. It might help, for example, to give a family member or loved one the ability to sign checks for routine expenses, or permit them to deal with a principal’s bank accounts when the principal is not in a position to do so for herself. When the principal selects this responsible person (or agent,) they often do so because there is a natural trust or confidence between the two.

However, even in these naturally-trusting relationships, the potential for abuse exists, even if it is minimal. For example, what happens when the agent changes the mailing address on the bank statements to his address, instead of the principal’s, and fails to keep the principal advised of the financial activities? What happens when the principal receives no response to questions about the agent’s recent actions?

Beyond matters of simple convenience, powers of attorney create a legal relationship between the principal and the agent. When acting, the agent becomes a fiduciary to the principal, and owes certain and specific legal obligations. One of these primary duties is an obligation to act only in the manner that the principal directs. Another duty of the agent, often overlooked in my experience, is a legal obligation to account to the principal.

Texas law requires an agent to inform and account to the principal of his or her actions. Agents should keep careful and accurate records of their activities and transactions, as a principal may demand a detailed accounting of such things at whatever time they choose. If the agent fails to provide it, the principal may revoke the power of attorney, or may even file suit against the agent to compel the production of the accounting. Many times, these steps will not prove necessary, but the remedies serve to remind the agent that it is the principal running the show. Although nobody ever anticipates having to file suit to keep their agent in line, the availability of such a remedy should give agents reason enough to act correctly, and should give principals reason enough to exercise care and caution when selecting their agent.

Non-Probate Assets

Every estate planning client is unique. There are simply far too many variables to boil effective estate planning down to a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Families and loved ones are diverse and dynamic, and assets vary immeasurably from one circumstance to the next. However, there are some common elements in most cases. The coordination of what are typically known as “non-probate assets” is one of those elements that comes up in the case of nearly every estate planning client that I counsel.

In a nutshell, “non-probate assets” are those assets that are specifically designed to pass to a designated beneficiary, or group of beneficiaries, at a future point. They can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and insurance policies represent a perfect example. John Doe purchases a $1 million insurance policy and names his wife, Jane, as the sole beneficiary. At John’s death, his insurer holds up their end of the contract and pays Jane once she informs them of John’s death and provides the necessary identification. Seems easy enough.

However, in many past cases, I have seen decedents’ Wills that attempt to direct who is entitled to certain “non-probate assets,” whether a life insurance policy, retirement account, or other such similar asset. Sometimes they identify the same beneficiary, and sometimes they do not. What if John Doe died leaving a Will that gave his life insurance policy to his girlfriend, and not to Jane, as the policy directed? And so many clients ask the obvious question: When they conflict, do the policy proceeds pass under the Will, or does the insurance policy control where the proceeds go?

The answer, which remains surprising to some, is that the provisions of the Will take a backseat to the provisions of the contract. With very little exception, the Texas Probate Code governs Wills, Trusts and other types of instruments. Insurance policies are not generally governed by the same law. Rather, they are contracts between the insured party and the insurer. When an event (John’s death,) triggers the obligation of the insurer (paying the proceeds to Jane,) the insurer’s obligation is to abide by the contract and pay the proceeds to Jane. Whether or not John left a Will is irrelevant to the insurance company. Similarly, his attempt to direct the proceeds to someone other than his designated beneficiary falls short.

In future posts, look for some discussion of some circumstances where it may work to John’s advantage to coordinate his “non-probate assets” with his Will to achieve the result that he wanted. In the meantime, remember that “non-probate assets” are generally governed by the contract that creates them. Many clients neglect this side of their estate planning, as they are primarily focused on having a well-drafted Will in place. Review the beneficiary designations that you have made on your own “non-probate assets,” and you can be certain that your plan fits together to cover all of your intentions.