Putnam v. Putnam
426 Mass. 770, 682 N.E.2d 1351 (1997)

  • Putman had a lawyer create a unitrust. The trust held some property, which never produced income. The trust provisions were that it was to distribute a certain dollar amount of income or 10% from the trust principle value (if there was no income) per year to Putnam, or if he was dead, to King. After twenty years, whatever was left was to be given to some charities.
    • A unitrust is also known as a charitable remainder trust. The settlor puts in some money from an asset (such as the sale of a house), then the settlor gets a percentage of the trust each year, but upon death the gives the remainder to a non-taxable charitable organization.
      • This stops the settlor from paying capital gains tax.
    • If you do the math, you will notice that since there wasn’t going to be an income from the property (since the property wasn’t rented out) if the trust gives away 10% of the principle per year, there couldn’t possibly be anything left after 20 years to give to the charities.
  • Putnam sought to have the trust reformed because it was inconsistent with his intent to benefit the charities. No one contested the reformation of the trust, but the Trial Court felt that the IRS would only accept a ruling from the Massachusetts Supreme Court on this issue, so they kicked it up.
  • The Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed the reformation of the trust.
    • The Massachusetts Supreme Court found (upon talking to Putnam) that there was clear and convincing evidence of a mistake in the drafting of the trust instrument.
    • Clearly the problem here was that the lawyer made a mistake in drafting the unitrust, but since Putnam had been trying to do it properly the Court gave him a do-over.