Alpert v. Riley: Settlor owes no fiduciary duty to beneficiaries

In a recent decision the Houston Court of Appeals [1st District] rejected breach of fiduciary claims against the settlor of a trust:

Once a settlor completes a transfer of assets to a trust, the beneficiaries gain beneficial title and the trustee gains sole legal title in, and exclusive control over, the trust property, subject to the trust instrument.  Black’s Law Dictionary 1546 (8th ed. 2004) (explaining characteristics of various trusts); see alsoPickelner, 229 S.W.3d at 526.  At the same time, the trustee, as a fiduciary, has equitable duties to hold and manage the property for the benefit of the beneficiaries.  Tex. Prop. Code Ann. §§ 113.051, 113.056(a) (Vernon 2007).  Certain of those fiduciary duties are nondelegable.  See Tex. Commerce Bank, N.A. v. Grizzle, 96 S.W.3d 240, 249 (Tex. 2002); Slay v. Burnett Trust, 187 S.W.2d 377, 387–88 (Tex. 1945); see also Transamerican Leasing Co. v. Three Bears, Inc., 586 S.W.2d 472, 476 (Tex. 1979) (“The general rule is that a trustee may not delegate his discretionary power to another.  A trustee may, however, . . . give authority to another to carry out ministerial or mechanical acts . . . .”); see generallyTex. Prop. Code Ann. § 113.018 (Vernon 2007) (allowing trustee to employ investment agents and brokers “as reasonably necessary in the administration of the trust estate”).  Unless the trust instrument expressly provides otherwise, a settlor has no duty to manage trust property, and the trustee alone is responsible as a fiduciary if he allows the settlor to mismanage trust property to the detriment of the trust.

None of the three trusts assigned any duty to Alpert, and thus Alpert could not otherwise owe any fiduciary duty.  Absent some assignment of duty to the settlor in the trust instrument, a trustee has no cause of action to sue the settlor of a trust for a breach of fiduciary duty to the trust beneficiaries.  Cf. Ray Malooly Trust v. Juhl, 186 S.W.3d 568, 570 (Tex. 2006) (noting that under Texas law, a trust refers to “the fiduciary relationship governing the trustee with respect to the trust property”) (emphasis added) (quoting Huie v. DeShazo, 922 S.W.2d 920, 926 (Tex. 1996) (per curiam).  A trust settlor has no fiduciary obligation to a trust beneficiary once that trust is created, and control of the trust assets is vested with the trustee.  See id.; see also Tex. Prop. Code Ann. § 111.004(4) (Vernon 2007 & Supp.) (defining “express trust”).


Cases, TXPLMichael Young