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Justices: Trustee of revocable trust serves self

November 22, 2013

The Indiana Supreme Court accepted a revocable trust case to answer the first impression question: While a trust is revocable, whom does the trustee serve? The justices concluded that an Indiana woman, as trustee, served herself.

In Harold O. Fulp, Jr. v. Nancy A. Gilliland, 41S01-1306-TR-426, Harold Fulp Jr. sought specific performance of the purchase agreement he made with his elderly mother to buy the family farm at a discounted price. Ruth Fulp placed the farm in a revocable trust and was the trustee, primary beneficiary and settlor. Her daughter Nancy Gilliland, who became successor trustee after Ruth Fulp resigned as trustee, refused to proceed with the sale. Fulp Jr. had purchased the farm at the same per-acre discount that Gilliland had paid when she previously purchased another portion of the farm.  

The trial court denied specific performance because it found Ruth Fulp breached her fidicuary duty to her children by selling the farm at a low price and Fulp Jr. breached his fiduciary duty as a beneficiary by participating in the sale. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, believing Ruth Fulp had sold the farm as settlor, not trustee.

“Nancy sought transfer, asking us to decide whether the trustee of a revocable trust owes a duty to the settlor alone or also to the remainder beneficiaries,” Justice Loretta Rush wrote. “We granted transfer to address that issue, and we conclude that while a revocable trust is revocable, the trustee only owes a duty to the settlor. Therefore, Ruth was free to sell the farm as trustee, as the purchase agreement reflected, without breaching any fiduciary duty. And since Ruth owed her children no duty as trustee, she had no need to sell the farm as settlor, as the Court of Appeals concluded—nor would the facts in this case support any intent to amend the Trust.”

Ruth Fulp’s fiduciary duty was to herself, as settlor and primary beneficiary. That duty does not extend to her beneficiary children, because that would mean she was serving two masters, the justices held. Such conflicting duties would essentially make the trust irrevocable because complying as trustee with her own wishes to revoke the trust would breach the purported duty to the remainder beneficiaries by placing her own interests above theirs.

Since the trial court misinterpreted the trust and law by determining Ruth Fulp had a duty to her children that she breached and Fulp Jr. aided in that breach, the court abused its discretion in denying specific performance, Rush wrote.

 

 

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