A recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision suggests that a settlor who retains the power to substitute assets into an intentionally defective irrevocable trust (an “IDIT”) may be prevented from substituting a promissory note into the IDIT, even if the settlor retained the right to substitute assets into the IDIT without the supervision of a fiduciary. The decision, along with the District Court order that it upholds, suggests that a settlor’s retained right to substitute assets into an IDIT is more limited than the settlor might imagine or hope.

In In the Matter of the Trust Created by Mark Vance Condiotti, 14CA0969 (unpublished decision), a settlor established an IDIT (the “Condiotti Trust”) for the benefit of his son. The trust agreement gave the settlor the right to reacquire the trust corpus by substituting other property of an “equivalent value.” The agreement stated that the settlor could exercise this power in a nonfiduciary capacity, without the approval or consent of any person acting in a fiduciary capacity. This “substitution power,” also referred to as a “swap power,” is often included in IDITs because it causes the IDIT to be treated as a grantor trust for income tax purposes but does not cause the IDIT’s assets to be included in the settlor’s estate for estate tax purposes. When an IDIT is treated as a grantor trust, the settlor may pay the income taxes for the IDIT without incurring any gift taxes (thus increasing the value of the trust gift tax-free).

After funding the trust with a diversified portfolio of securities, the settlor notified the trustees of the Condiotti Trust that he intended to reacquire the entire corpus of the Trust in exchange for a promissory note. The promissory note had a face value equal to the value of the Condiotti Trust’s securities, and paid interest at the Applicable Federal Rate.

The trustees refused to accept the promissory note in exchange for the securities. The settlor threatened to sue. The trustees petitioned the District Court of La Plata County, where the trust was then administered, for instructions.

In their petition for instructions, the trustees argued that they could reject the promissory note because the trust agreement only permitted the settlor to substitute assets of equivalent value, and the promissory note did not have a value equivalent to the Trust’s securities because (1) it was unsecured, (2) it bore interest at a low rate, and (3) there was little market for promissory notes. They also argued that the settlor’s proposed substitution was actually a request for a loan from the Condiotti Trust to the settlor, which was not permitted by the trust agreement.

The settlor argued that the promissory note did have a value equal to that of the Condiotti Trust’s assets because it had a face value equal to the value of the trust’s securities, and, under Section 7872 of the Internal Revenue Code, a promissory note is valued at its face value as long as it pays interest at the Applicable Federal Rate and the Settlor is solvent.

The District Court issued an order stating that the trustees were entitled to reject the proposed substitution. First, it stated that, in the context of an asset substitution involving an IDIT, assets will be considered to be of equivalent value if they have (1) an equivalent value under the Internal Revenue Code, AND (2) an equivalent fair market value. As the settlor’s promissory note bore interest at a low rate and there is little market for reselling promissory notes, the District Court found that the note did not have an equivalent fair market value to the Condiotti Trust’s more liquid diversified securities.

Second, the District Court held that the trustees could reject the proposed substitution because it was in fact a request for a loan from the Trust to the settlor, which was not permitted under the trust agreement.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s finding that the proposed substitution was a request for a loan from the Trust to the settlor. The Court provided four questions for courts to consider when determining whether a particular transaction is a loan: (1) do the parties stand in the relationship of debtor and creditor; (2) was a promissory note executed; (3) was interested agreed to or paid; and (4) did the parties agree that the recipient would repay the monies received?

The Court of Appeals did not address the District Court’s finding that the note was not of equivalent value to the trust’s assets.

What does this case mean for settlors who wish to exercise their retained powers of substitution?

First, a settlor should ensure that his or her proposed substitution transaction does not appear to be a loan, especially where the trust agreement does not allow the trust to make loans to the settlor. In fact, the Court of Appeals’ four questions suggest that a settlor should never attempt to substitute a promissory note for trust assets. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which a substitution of a promissory note into a trust does not result in (1) a debtor-creditor relationship between the settlor and the trust, (2) an executed promissory note, (3) agreed-to interest, and (4) an agreement that the settlor would repay the trust.

Second, any settlor who exercises his or her power of substitution should ensure that the asset being substituted into the trust is truly of equivalent value to the assets being taken out of the trust. The District Court’s Order indicates that a trustee may scrutinize both the tax value and the fair market value of any asset that a settlor proposes to substitute into a trust, and that the trustee may reject a substitution if it determines that either of those values is too low. Additionally, the settlor risks rejection if the property being substituted into the trust could not be resold to the same extent as the property being removed from the trust.