Are Directed Trusts Too Good to Be True?

Decade-old trust feature that splits trustee and advisor into separate operations has become accepted practice for banks and trust companies nationwide; but questions remain: will they last?

On the surface, directed trusts are an obvious win for everyone. Splitting the administration of a newly created trust from the responsibility of managing the assets within it lets legacy advisors keep their accounts and custody provider—such as Schwab or Fidelity. Trustees avoid the headaches of managing exotic assets, while their clients can feel secure knowing that experts are in charge of every aspect of their wealth.

Jeffrey Lauterbach gets credit for turning the concept into a trust operation that propelled his firm, Capital Trust, from zero to $6 billion in trust assets in six years. “It was always market driven,” he told me in a recent interview. “Advisors told us want they wanted, and we delivered.”

Lauterbach sold his operation in 2005, which was subsequently sold to Wilmington Trust in 2007. He added, “Wilmington tried to make a go of it by itself, but didn’t stick with it long enough to make it work. We did”

Today, firms like Advisory Trust of Delaware (Capital Trust’s successor, owned by Wilmington Trust), Santa Fe Trust, Reliance Trust and Wealth Advisors Trust Company of South Dakota are actively courting advisors who want to add value without handing off the relationships they’ve worked so hard to build. Fees are generally split between trustee and investment manager, which helps make sure everyone stays happy.

These advisor-oriented trust companies are also promoting the directed trust model directly to wealthy people who may benefit from a trust but don’t feel like handing the reins of a family business, for example, to a relative stranger who knows nothing about how to keep the business going. In these cases, setting up a directed trust lets insiders stay in charge and still enjoy the other advantages of ownership under the trust structure.

“A corporate trustee doesn’t want to get involved in running a closely held business, and families don’t want corporate trustees interfering in a lot of their decisions,” trusts and estates lawyer Bruce Stone told Lawyers USA (a professional monthly for the legal profession) back in 2007. “With a directed trust, the corporate trustee only has to do certain things.”

Liability in the Details

So far so good, but if things go wrong, the question of who gets blamed still gets decided on a state-by-state basis. The limits of a trustee’s responsibility to monitor the advisors assigned to direct the trust’s investments are often nebulous, and some have been sued for failing to spot and stop misconduct fast enough.

It’s a controversial topic even among The Trust Advisor’s readership. When we posted back in January our analysis of the most trust-favorable states, estate planners piped up with corrections.

“In your chart, you indicated that Florida doesn’t have a power to direct,” wrote Lester Law, a senior vice president at U.S. Trust Bank of America Private Wealth Management working in Naples, Florida. “Can you review the … statute and let me know what you think?” And Boulder, Colorado attorney Scott Robinson alerted us that “The chart indicates that Wyoming does not have a directed trust statute. Wyoming does in fact have such a statute.”

Two Approaches

In an influential 2007 white paper on the subject which may be downloaded, “Directed Trusts: Can Directed Trustees Limit Their Liability?,”

Read More