One of the purposes of a Trust is to provide a structure for the distribution of assets after the lifetime of the creator of the Trust (the Grantor of the Trust) to the beneficiaries of the Trust who are designated to receive the Trust assets after the Grantor passes away.
In some cases, Trust assets are distributed outright to beneficiaries, meaning the Trustee has no discretion over when or if the beneficiaries receive the Trust assets. As soon as debts and taxes are paid, and the Trust assets are distributed from the Trust to the beneficiaries and the Trust terminates.
However, in many cases, Trusts are created for the purpose of providing oversight and management of the Trust assets for beneficiaries following the Grantor’s death. This may be done because the beneficiaries are minor children. In such cases, the Trustee will use the money for the children to ensure their living expenses are covered, their education is paid for, and the beneficiaries have a chance to mature before they are given control of inherited assets. Or it may be that a beneficiary is not good at managing money, is in a difficult marriage, has spendthrift tendencies or a gambling habit. In such cases, the Trust is created to protect the inherited assets. Control of the Trust assets will remain with the Trustee who will apply the Trust resources for the beneficiary as the Trustee determines to be prudent. Or it may be that the beneficiary has special needs or is disabled in some way, and the Trust assets are there to provide for the beneficiary’s needs in ways that will not disqualify the beneficiary from receiving or being eligible to receive needs-based public benefits.
In all of these circumstances, it is the job of the attorney drafting the Trust to communicate the Grantor’s intent while at the same time making sure that the Trust instructions are flexible enough to allow the Trustee to respond to changed circumstances or unanticipated events that arise following the Grantor’s death. Because of the need for flexibility, mandating specific directions in the Trust document can be unwise, both because they may tie the Trustee’s hands, and also because they may become inappropriate as the beneficiary ages or circumstances change.
On the other hand, the intent of the Grantor of a Trust is extremely important, as it is that intent that should inform the Trustee’s decision-making from how the Trust assets are managed to how the Trustee exercises discretion for the benefit of the Trust beneficiaries.
Enter the letter of intent – an excellent tool that a Grantor can use to spell out his intent and provide guidance to the Trustee without memorializing these intentions in the Trust document. Think of a letter of intent as the Grantor’s private instructions to the Trustee. A letter of intent should be written by the Grantor in the Grantor’s own words. In it, the Grantor should state the reasons for creating the Trust, tell the Trustee about the beneficiaries, and express the Grantor’s wishes for the way the Trustee should use the Trust resources to help the beneficiary.
For example, the Grantor of a Trust that is intended to manage assets for the Grantor’s minor children may express his wish that his children attend private secondary school and that tuition be paid for by the Trustee, that his children be allowed to travel to visit relatives abroad, or be encouraged to study abroad in college, or that his daughter’s love of horseback riding or his son’s passion for the saxophone be fostered and encouraged.
If the Trust is for the benefit of a beneficiary with special needs, the Grantor may want to express wishes regarding the child’s need for specific therapies or enjoyment of certain experiences – for example a yearly trip to Disney World. A letter of intent can also set out a parent’s vision for their child’s future – for example, wanting the child to be able to live independently with a companion, or in a group home setting.
The beauty of a letter of intent is that it can be changed as often as necessary, to keep pace with the Grantor’s changing desires for the beneficiaries without the need to update the Trust document. This can be especially useful where the intended beneficiaries of the Trust are young, and their needs and interests, and the Grantor’s goals for them may change from year to year – for example, if a child’s passion for the saxophone this year turns into a passion for the trumpet, or soccer, or chess next year.
The letter of intent need not be perfect or all encompassing, and as time passes, may no longer be relevant. For example, if the Grantor dies while beneficiaries are young, the Grantor’s intent as expressed in that letter will be frozen in time. However, a Trustee will be able to take some useful guidance from the letter that can be applied as the beneficiaries age.
As a Grantor, writing a letter of intent is not an easy exercise, or one that should be done in haste. However, done thoughtfully and mindful of the fact that it is to be used as a roadmap of your intentions for the people you intend to benefit with the assets you leave behind, it can be a very fulfilling exercise. If the letter is modified as time goes on and circumstances change, you have an opportunity to leave the best possible evidence of your intentions for those you have entrusted with carrying out those intentions after your lifetime.
If you have questions about creating your own letter of intent, please contact our office. We will be happy to assist you.