Why You Should Plan Carefully Your Trust Fund
I spoke to CBS News last week about the latest developments in the Spanos trust litigation. The family that owns the LA Chargers has been embroiled in acrimony since the passing of Alex and Faye Spanos. Alex and Faye’s trust, which owns 36% of the Chargers, made two of their children, Dean and Dea, co-trustees upon their death. If another cautionary tale was needed to illustrate the dangers of requiring siblings to work together as co-trustees after the death of their parents, this case uses neon lights to make the point.
The latest plot twist is that Dea Spanos has filed a petition with the court accusing Dean of breaching his fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries of the trust, including Dea. Some of the main allegations are that Dean:
- used trust money to benefit himself personally at the expense of the other beneficiaries;
- used trust money to purchase an airplane that was used for personal rather than business purposes; and
- unleashed “hostility and retaliation” against Dea whenever she attempted to raise concerns about his alleged breaches of duty as trustee.
Also alleged is that another sibling, Michael, is effectively serving alongside Dean as a “shadow” trustee, acting in such capacity without any authority to do so under the terms of the trust. Dea alleges in the petition that she is being bullied and harassed by the male siblings because she is a woman.
According to the petition: “Dea believes that Dean and Michael have repeatedly acted out of their deeply-held misogynistic attitudes and sense of entitlement as the men in the family to trample the Settlors’ express intention that Dean and Dea – not Michael – serve together, jointly and equally as co-trustees, and to rationalize their pitiable behavior which she believes is intended to teach her that a woman has no rights, no matter what any trust instrument might say.”
Who Should Act As A Successor?
The question of who should act as successor trustee is a key part of the estate planning conversation. Where there are responsible adult children, sometimes the oldest will be chosen for the role, with the remaining children listed as back ups in order of age. From time to time, parents will want to name all of their children as joint successor trustees because they don’t want to favor one over the others. The discussion inevitably then turns to whether the children will be able to work together.
Even in families where the siblings have had a hitherto harmonious relationship, unfortunately we regularly see those relationships disintegrate when they have to work together as successor trustees after the parents have passed away. Very often, my advice is not to put the children in that situation. Ultimately, though, it is for each family to decide how they want to structure their affairs. We are there to guide and provide advice, not substitute our own decisions for those of our clients.
In some ways, the case of the Spanos family is an outlier, given the extent of the assets involved and the high profile nature of the business owned by the trust. However, the lessons to be learned are undoubtedly applicable to all families that are diligently seeking to avoid conflict between siblings after the passing of their parents.