Articles Posted in Estate Administration

The Arizona Trust Code at A.R.S. §14-11010(A) states that “Except as otherwise provided in the contract, a trustee is not personally liable on a contract properly entered into in the trustee’s fiduciary capacity in the course of administering the trust if the trustee in the contract disclosed the fiduciary capacity.” This provision indicates that so long as the trustee has disclosed his representative capacity that the trustee is not personally liable UNLESS the trustee expressly makes himself or herself personally liable to a contract (i.e. by giving a personal guaranty). This provision is meant to protect trustees, properly acting on behalf of a trust, when entering into contracts with third parties for the benefit of the trust.

In a recent case, the protection of the trust from liability to a third party were challenged where the trustee was thought not to have clearly enough indicated she was operating solely in her representative capacity. In the case of Focus Point/Kantor v. Johnson/Oak Acres, 235 Ariz. 170, 330 P.3d 360 (App. 2014), the Court concluded on the specific facts of the case that the trustee was not personally liable for a breach of contract by the trust, where specific provisions of the listing agreement and the manner in which the listing agreement was signed made it clear enough that the trustee was acting in her representative capacity.

In Focus Point, the Trustee hired a realtor to assist selling a piece of commercial property titled in the name of the Trust. After the initial listing agreement was signed, the realtor requested a second listing agreement for a longer period of time. The second listing agreement was prepared by the realtor, and was not reviewed by the Trustee. The Trustee proceeded to sign her name without further specifying in her own handwriting that she was signing in her representative capacity. The opposing party initially obtained a jury trial judgment against the trustee personally. However, on appeal, the court set aside the personal judgment against the trustee for several reasons.

Proceedings in the Superior Court to contest a will or trust are relatively uncommon. This is very good because these proceedings can be hotly and emotionally contested. The damage done can alienate family members for decades. In some cases, the damage can never be repaired.

Sometimes Will or Trust contests arise when the Will or Trust document is claimed to be defective in some way. The Court must determine if the document is legally sufficient and, if so, what it’s terms are.   Many times, however, the Will or Trust does comply with legal requirements but it is claimed that the document does not accurately reflect the decedent’s wishes due to the decedent’s lack of capacity or due to undue influence exerted over the decedent by another person. These cases are often more difficult. A few of the circumstances that might lead to a contest of a decedent’s estate plan are:

  1. Where heirs who normally would inherit have been omitted.

When I first started practicing law digital assets did not exist. Now many of us consider digital assets indispensable since they make up a large portion of the record of our lives. Digital Assets are, of course, all of the things we store on the web; social media pages such as facebook, photos, videos, personal and business documents, personal and business websites, e-mails and even text messages. So what happens to all of this when a person dies? Does it all pass to the decedent’s heirs? Until just recently, these questions were answered by the website’s Terms of Service Agreements. These are the long documents in legalese that a prospective user must accept as a condition of using the site. Most of us are guilty of simply clicking the “accept” button without reading any of it. But these agreements supersede a decedent’s will or trust and can create hardship.

In 2016 Arizona changed this and brought predictability to the disposition of digital assets by enacting the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (FADAA).   The new law became effective on August 8, 2016 and provides that you can now pass your digital assets to your heirs or beneficiaries by your will, trust, power of attorney, notarized written statement or by using a website’s online tool provided for this purpose, if one exists. Not only can you now pass your digital assets via your estate planning documents, you can also specify that access to certain digital assets is to be withheld and the content deleted.   The complete text of the new law can be found at A.R.S. §14-13101 through A.R.S. §14-13118.

To take advantage of the new law we recommend that you consider amending estate planning documents to give instructions for the disposition of your digital assets. If you use an online tool to give such instructions, you need to know that your online instructions will supersede any instructions given in your will or trust. It works like a Payable on Death account which passes the account balance to the listed beneficiary despite the existence of a will or trust.   We also recommend that you provide your attorney or other trusted individual with a current listing of the online accounts and websites used by you with the log in and password information for each.

Your Will is an essential estate planning document. However, it covers only those assets that make up your probate estate. There are other assets called non-probate assets and your Will does not control these. Your Phoenix estate planning lawyer needs to know about both types of assets when preparing an estate plan.

Non-probate assets are normally those for which you have already designated a beneficiary upon your death. These are often:

  1. Life Insurance policies,

What is an ancillary probate? When a person dies, their state of residence has jurisdiction over their estate. This is the state where a probate is usually filed. The state of residence is also normally where the decedent’s property is located.   However, sometimes a decedent owned property in another state. When this happens, an ancillary probate is often needed to handle the out of state property. It is a probate proceeding that is ancillary to and designed to assist the main probate.   Ancillary probates are common in Arizona because thousands of our winter visitors have purchased homes here but continue to reside in their home states.   Similarly, many of our Clients probating an estate here in Arizona often need our help to locate and hire an out of state attorney to transfer property the decedent owned in that state.   Obviously, probating an estate in two or more states adds additional cost and complexity to the handling an estate.

How can an ancillary probate be avoided? An ancillary probate can be avoided by using the same strategies employed to avoid any probate. Assets need to be held in such a way that they do not need to go through a probate. They become non-probate assets. Some of the common ways to accomplish this are:

  1. Use payable on death (POD) or transfer on death (TOD) accounts. If your financial institution accounts are set up this way, no probate is needed to transfer the accounts to the person or persons you have named as transferee.

Much has been written by estate planning attorneys as to how to avoid probate. It is true that drafting of estate planning documents with a goal of probate avoidance is of great value to families. But sometimes a probate is needed or can be useful. Here are a few of the benefits of the probate procedure:

  1. The most important benefit is that a probate provides a court supervised procedure. This encourages a timely and more formal administration of the estate. It also provides a framework within which a duly appointed personal representative can have subpoenas issued, investigate the assets and debts of the estate, recover assets, collect money owed to the estate, and challenge disputed claims.   ARS 14-3701 lists some of the duties of a personal representative.
  2. In administering a probate estate, a personal representative is held to the same fiduciary standard as a trustee including the duty to account. ARS 14-3703. This provides a measure of protection to the estate beneficiaries or heirs.