Echoes of the Doctrine of Worthier Title in current trust law

Charles E. Rounds, Jr. - Suffolk University Law School
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In §5.2 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (2022) we consider those trusts whose remaindermen are to be determined by reference to formulas set forth in intestacy statutes, provisions such as “upon the death of the life beneficiary, the property passes to those who would be the settlor's heirs,” or words to that effect. But what if the term “heirs” in a given situation were actually intended as the probate estate of the settlor? Here, the Doctrine of Worthier Title may come into play. The Doctrine of Worthier Title, a remnant of Anglo-Norman feudal law, may apply to the following type of trust: A (settlor) to B (trustee) for A for life, then to the “heirs of A.” If the “heirs of A” were actually intended as the probate estate of A then the only beneficiary of the trust is A. Upon the death of A, the property reverts to the probate estate of A upon a resulting trust. A’s presumptive heirs do not take title from B, the trustee, as “purchasers.” If they take at all, they take as beneficiaries of A’s probate estate, “by descent” as it were. But they may in fact not take at all because A, having possessed a vested reversionary interest, could have transferred out that interest to a third party

Today, the Doctrine of Worthier Title has evolved into a rule of construction. In other words, what did the settlor intend? Does the term “heirs” mean his probate estate or is it an abbreviated formula for ascertaining remaindermen along the lines of Professor Casner's more elaborate formula set forth in §5.2 of the Handbook? Some states have addressed the issue by creating statutory presumptions. Massachusetts has abolished the doctrine both as a rule of law and a rule of construction.

What is the practical concern for today's trustee? Simply this: If the Doctrine of Worthier Title is applicable in a given situation, A is the sole beneficiary. There are no other interests to be accommodated. Thus, A may be able to revoke the trust, his creditors may be able to reach the principal, and A will be able to defeat the interests of his presumptive heirs at law by transferring the reversionary interest inter vivos or by will. If A is also the sole trustee, then there is no trust at all because all interests are “merged” in A. It should be noted that §2-710 of the UPC would abolish the doctrine altogether, both as a rule of law and as a rule of construction. The Restatement (Third) of Trusts recognizes no such rule of construction.

The Doctrine of Worthier Title’s trust application is about the heirs of the settlor. The Rule in Shelley’s Case’s trust application, another remnant of Anglo-Norman late feudal law, is about the heirs of someone other than the settlor. The Rule in Shelley’s Case’s trust application is the subject of §8.15.3 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (2022), which section is reproduced in the appendix below. The Handbook is available for purchase at https://law-store.wolterskluwer.com/s/product/loring-rounds-a-trustees-handbook-2022e-misb/01t4R00000OVWE4QAP.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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