May 20, 2011
Clients often ask why we need to report or account to beneficiaries. This is a particularly perplexing concept when the beneficiaries are remote (i.e., they are not currently due to receive anything from the trust and may never receive, unless they outlive the current beneficiary(s)). A related question is to whom we must report and when?
When the grantor is still alive and is serving as his or her own trustee, there is no duty to report. This makes sense, as it would be a duty for the owner who retains total and complete control over the assets in the trust to report to him or herself. These very common estate planning trusts are known under the Internal Revenue Code as "Grantor-Revocable Trusts." The get this name from the section in the Internal Revenue Code which exempts them from filing or reporting separately on an income tax return. Instead, the grantor simply continues to report these items on their personal tax return. However, on the death of the grantor (and in some circumstances, when the grantor no longer is acting as trustee, if though they may be still living), the duty to report and file income tax returns arises.
Perhaps the most direct answer to why we must do this is that the law requires it. But what, exactly does that mean? Estates, whether Probate Estates or Trust Administration, are mainly governed by the law of the state where the grantor is/was a resident, or where they stipulated in the Trust Agreement which state law would govern. So we must look to the Statutes of the State. At the same time, in an effort to achieve some uniformity from state to state, there are "unofficial," but very influential and persuasive guidelines to Trust and Estate administration. State statutes often follow the guidance of these "national" guidelines.The Restatement of Trusts (now in its 3rd iteration) is one such uniform nationally recognized guideline. The Restatement (Third) of Trusts states that A trustee has a duty to maintain clear, complete, and accurate books and records regarding the trust property and the administration of the trust, and, at reasonable intervals on request, to provide beneficiaries with reports or accountings. Following on this, Michigan's new Michigan Trust Code contains provisions requiring a Trustee to report to beneficiaries.
The Trustee of a Trust is a fiduciary. That means that they have a special duty to all of the trust beneficiaries, of fair and honest dealing, and of sensible management and investment of the trust's assets. This fiduciary duty also includes the duty to keep beneficiaries apprised of the status of the trust's assets and investments.
Who are the beneficiaries entitled to an account or report? That is a bit less clear. It is clear that the current beneficiaries are entitled. But what about more remote (or contingent) beneficiaries? The commentary to the new Michigan Trust Code says the language of the code "clarifies" this formerly unclear area. I am not so sure. The Code uses the new term (new to us in Michigan, anyway), "qualified beneficiaries." It defines "qualified beneficiary" in what I think is a rather confusing way. What is clear is that current beneficiaries are entitled to an accounting and that more remote beneficiaries may be entitled. The code requires a reporting to the current beneficiaries (current generally meaning that they have some current rights to trust assets, either in the form of income distributions or the right to distributions of some or all of the principal in the trust). It then goes on to say that other "qualified" beneficiaries are entitled to an accounting on request.
The Michigan Trust Code authorizes the maker (grantor) of the Trust to limit the duty of the Trustee to report to certain beneficiaries. However, a Probate Court can override this and order reporting anyway.
In my view, what this tells us is that a Trustee should keep detailed records, and prepare a report at least annually, to keep in its records. While that does not necessarily mean provide each beneficiary with an account, it puts the Trustee (or successors) in a position to provide that information upon an order of the Court. It may serve a secondary purpose of highlighting for the grantor and/or Trustee any problems that might be lurking out there in terms of trust accounting and record – keeping.
Finally, on all but "grantor revocable trusts," the Trustee will be required to file an annual income tax return with the IRS and with any state or states in which it earns reportable income. So it doesn't seem like a huge inconvenience for the tax preparer and/or Trustee to simply put together some kind of accounting report each year as and when the tax return is prepared.
The Michigan Trust Code does not specify a format for the report. It does give guidelines, suggesting that the report should be thorough and detailed enough to fully apprise the recipient of the nature and status of trust assets. This means it should probably have a method for recording items of income as well as how they affect the capital or income side of the trust accounts, as well as items of loss and expenditure, for the same reasons.