Keeping a trust a secret may not achieve the outcome you’d expect

When planning their estates, many affluent people agonize over the impact their wealth might have on their children. Bill Gates reportedly said, “I won’t leave a lot of money to my heirs because I don’t think it would be good for them.”

Even parents of more modest means worry about how the prospect of an inheritance might affect their kids and grandkids. Might it be a disincentive to staying in school, working or otherwise becoming productive members of society?

To address these concerns, some people establish “quiet trusts,” also known as “silent trusts.” In other words, they leave a significant sum in trust for their children; they just don’t tell them about it. It’s an interesting approach, but is it effective?

A questionable strategy

Many states permit quiet trusts, but arguably the risks associated with them outweigh the potential benefits. For one thing, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to keep your wealth a secret. If you live an affluent lifestyle, it’s likely that your children expect to share the wealth someday, and using a quiet trust won’t change that. Even if your children are unaware of the details of your estate plan, their expectations of a future inheritance may encourage the same irresponsible behavior the quiet trust was intended to avoid.

A quiet trust may also increase the risk of litigation. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to act in the beneficiaries’ best interests. If you create such a trust and your children become aware of it years or decades later, they may seek an accounting from the trustee and, with the help of counsel, may challenge any past decisions of the trustee that they disagree with.

A better alternative

The idea behind a quiet trust is generally to avoid disincentives for responsible behavior. But it’s not clear that such a trust will actually accomplish that goal. A better approach may be to design a trust that provides incentives to behave responsibly — sometimes referred to as an “incentive trust.” For example, the trust might condition distributions on behaviors you wish to encourage, such as obtaining a college degree, maintaining gainful employment, pursuing worthy volunteer activities, or avoiding alcohol or substance abuse.

A drawback to setting specific goals is that they may penalize a beneficiary who chooses an alternative, albeit responsible, lifestyle — for example, becoming a stay-at-home parent. To build flexibility into the trust, you may want to establish general principles for distributing trust funds to beneficiaries who behave responsibly, but give the trustee broad discretion to apply these principles on a case-by-case basis.

Keep quiet or provide incentive?

Perhaps the most important benefit of an incentive trust is that it provides an opportunity for you or the trustee to help shape the beneficiaries’ future behavior. With a quiet trust, you keep your beneficiaries’ inheritance a secret in hope that, without the negative influence of future wealth, they’ll behave responsibly. With an incentive trust, on the other hand, you can provide positive reinforcement by communicating the terms of the trust, letting beneficiaries know what they must do to receive their rewards, and providing them with the help they need to succeed.

Your attorney or financial advisor can answer any questions you have on the ins and outs of either of these trust types.

© 2023

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.