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“Spendthrift” Trust Protects Against Beneficiary’s Creditors

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MAY 17, 2010  VOLUME 17, NUMBER 16

What makes a trust a “spendthrift” trust, and what does it mean? A recent Florida Court of Appeal case gives a good snapshot of the significance and the effect of the categorization.

Elizabeth Miller wanted to leave her property to her two sons, but wanted to protect against her money being subjected to the claims of their creditors. This was particularly important to her because one son, James F. Miller, had already been sued over a business deal gone bad. In fact, there was a million dollar judgment on record and the plaintiffs were trying to collect from James.

Ms. Miller left James’s share of her estate in a trust with her other son, Jerry Miller, as trustee. The language of the trust authorized Jerry to give James any or all of the trust’s assets, but ordered that he not turn over anything to James’s creditors. Within weeks of making that change, Ms. Miller died and her estate passed partly to Jerry as trustee of James’s trust.

James’s creditors sued Jerry and the trust, claiming that James really exercised control over investments, distributions and trust decisions. The trial court agreed, and ruled that James had so much control over the trust and his brother that his interest in the trust had effectively “merged” into an ownership interest. The court’s order allowed James’s creditors to get to his inheritance.

Not so fast, said the Florida Court of Appeal. The appellate court agreed that James had effectively made trust decisions in place of Jerry, but noted that Jerry had the power to take back control at any time. It is the language of the trust itself and not the behavior of the trustee or the beneficiary that must control whether a spendthrift provision is effective, said the judges.

Had Ms. Miller’s trust given James the right to demand principal (or income) from the trust, that would have been a different matter. Because the decision to make those distributions ultimately rested with Jerry as trustee, James’s creditors could not reach behind the trust to gain access to the assets directly.

The appellate court agreed that “the facts in this case are perhaps the most egregious example of a trustee abdicating his responsibilities to manage and distribute trust property.” Nonetheless, the failure of the trustee to exercise control over the trust did not invalidate the spendthrift provision itself, and James’s creditors could not gain access to his inheritance. Miller v. Kresser, May 5, 2010.

Would Arizona courts have the same high regard for spendthrift provisions? Probably, if the trust’s property did not originally belong to the beneficiary. An individual can not create a spendthrift trust to protect his or her own property from creditors — though there are some exceptions. The most important exception under Arizona law is for trusts established for a beneficiary with a disability — so-called “special needs” trusts.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.