Fiduciary standards, as they relate to product specifically, and to business practices generally, can be expected to become more significant factors in product sales for the traditional structured settlement market as it continues to expand into, and interact with, the larger, more complex personal injury settlement planning market.
Multiple developments support this prediction. They include the expanding role of fiduciaries as settlement planning stakeholders and decision makers. In that context, fiduciaries most often serve as trustees, but also as guardians, conservators and/or executors.
Any person acting in a capacity has an obligation to act in the "best interest" of another party. A fiduciary duty requires a high standard of honesty and full disclosure including any potential conflicts of interests. A fiduciary must not obtain a personal benefit at the expense of his or her client.
Regardless of who sells/provides a financial or insurance product to a settlement trust, and what independent duties that product provider might have to a trust beneficiary (i.e. injury victim), the settlement trustee's own fiduciary duties arguably should require the settlement trustee to evaluate specific trust products, trust product providers and their related business conduct utilizing that same fiduciary standard which requires honesty, full disclosure, and best interest.
In personal injury settlement planning, several types of trusts are utilized - any of which may be funded with, or utilized to fund, structured settlements: qualified government bond trusts; reversionary grantor trusts; settlement preservation trusts; special needs trusts including pooled trusts; Medicare set-aside trusts; and IRC 468B Settlement Funds.
As one related result of the expanding use of settlement trusts, a unique settlement trust market is evolving in the United States characterized by:
- Specialized knowledge about government benefits required to serve "special needs" beneficiaries and their families.
- Willingness to consider structured settlements as trust assets and knowledge related thereto.
- Willingness to accept corpus amounts less than minimum requirements of traditional corporate trustees.
- Professional individual trustees as well as corporate trustees.
To S2KM's knowledge there does not yet exist any national association of settlement trustees. Instead, settlement trustees participate as members, speakers, sponsors and/or exhibitors at various structured settlement, settlement planning and special needs national conferences such as: NSSTA, SSP, NAMSAP, NAELA, ASNP, SN Alliance, Stetson SNT, University of Texas SNT among others.
There exist, however, state fiduciary associations the largest of which is the Professional Fiduciary Association of California (PFAC). To learn more about fiduciaries and fiduciary standards, from a structured settlement perspective, S2KM attended the 21st Annual PFAC Conference, which occurred June 1-4, 2016 in Indian Wells, California and featured 74 exhibitors, more than 600 attendees plus four days of speakers and breakout sessions covering a multitude of topics.
PFAC is an affiliate of the National Guardianship Association (NGA). California Court Rules define education and qualification requirements to serve as guardian, conservator or trustee in California. Attorneys and CPAs with current, active licenses to practice in California automatically qualify. To retain their license, professional fiduciaries must also meet continuing education requirements. Approximately 680 professional fiduciaries are currently licensed in California.
Not all professional fiduciaries, of course, work in personal injury settlement planning. In fact, relatively few of the PFAC Conference presentations and/or exhibits were even relevant to structured settlement and/or settlement planning professionals.
Uniform Prudent Investor Act
Perhaps the most important and relevant lessons S2KM learned during the PFAC conference concerned the duties of care and the investment considerations imposed upon trustees by the Uniform Prudent Investor Act (UPIA). Understanding these UPIA trustee duties and investment considerations will almost certainly help structured settlement and settlement planning professionals improve their sales success when personal injury cases include settlement trusts.
The UPIA , which was adopted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) in 1994, has been enacted, with some state-specific modifications, by 44 states and the District of Columbia. In those states, the UPIA, external to the trust document itself, serves as the most important reference defining a trustee's investment responsibilities.
Prior to the UPIA, courts applied the "prudent man rule" when evaluating trustee investment performance. The UPIA, by contrast, adopts "modern portfolio theory" as a different and more appropriate standard for trustees. Compared with the prudent man rule, promotes a holistic view of trust assets by focusing on the total return generated by a trust as opposed to viewing a trust's income and principal separately. This newer standard allows for greater investment diversification so long as the risk/reward ratio matches the purposes and terms of the trust instrument.
In his PFAC conference presentation titled "A Trustee's Duty of Care Under the UPIA", Josh Yager addressed how a trustee can demonstrate prudence and good faith, and thereby avoid a lawsuit, by fulfilling six trustee duties required under the UPIA:
- Duty to have a plan.
- Duty to monitor risk/return.
- Duty to diversify.
- Duty to pay only fair fees.
- Duty to prudently delegate.
- Duty to monitor agent's activities.
Yager never mentioned structured settlements or personal injury settlement planning during his discussion. Within the context of his presentation, however, here are some follow-up questions worth considering at future educational conferences:
- How should life contingent structured settlements be compared with other investment alternatives when trustees calculate rates of return needed to accomplish trust objectives?
- How can structured settlement and settlement planning professionals better anticipate and address trustee risk objections that many structured settlements include too much concentration, as well as a lack of liquidity?
- What are "asset classes" - and should structured settlements be promoted/evaluated as a distinct and necessary "asset class" within settlement trusts?
- Assuming trustees have a duty to evaluate compensation arrangements related to trust assets, should structured settlement professionals be required to disclose their case-specific compensation, including compensation sharing agreements? To whom? When?
- How do "industry standard" four (4%) percent structured settlement commissions compare with commissions and fees charged by other financial product providers? Are these commissions "fair" or "excessive"?
- Why was a given structured settlement design and/or settlement professional selected in a specific case? Does he/she possess appropriate licenses and credentials? Is he/she subject to any undisclosed conflicts of interest? Has he/she been the subject of any prior lawsuits or client complaints? Does he/she understand the trustee's duties under the UPIA? Has he/she accomplished what they promised?
- What legal options does a trustee have when confronted with a structured settlement or structured settlement consultant that the trustee believes violates a fiduciary standard or duty for a specific settlement trust under the UPIA?
Although not specifically discussed in any of the PFAC presentations S2KM attended, Section 2(c) of the UPIA identifies eight additional factors a trustee should consider when making any investment:
- General economic conditions.
- The possible effect of inflation or deflation.
- The expected tax consequences of investment decisions or strategies.
- The role that each investment or course of action plays within the overall trust portfolio.
- The expected total return from income and appreciation of capital.
- Other resources of the beneficiaries.
- Needs for liquidity, regularity of income, and preservation or appreciation of capital; and
- An asset’s relationship of special value, if any, to the purposes of the trust or to one or more of the beneficiaries.
When settlement trusts play a role in a personal injury settlement, structured settlement and settlement planning professionals should be prepared to address these factors as part of their sales strategy. Significant for structured settlements, the UPIA's list of investment considerations fails to mention mental or physical disabilities of a trust beneficiary. From a settlement planning perspective, injuries or diseases that create special needs or reduce an individual's normal life expectancy arguably should receive important consideration when a trustee makes investment decisions.
Comparative Business Standards
How do current business standards of structured settlement and settlement planning professionals measure up to the "best interest" standards required of trustees and other fiduciaries? Although various members of both the National Structured Settlement Trade Association (NSSTA) and the Society of Settlement Planners (SSP) are appointed as independent agents representing many of the same structured settlement annuity providers, the two associations address the issue of product suitability differently.
NSSTA, whose members include defense and plaintiff brokers, has adopted a "Statement of Ethics and Professional Responsibility" (Code of Ethics) with "guiding principles" for its members and member organizations. The Preamble provides: "Implicit in the acceptance of this Statement is an obligation to act in a professionally responsible and ethical manner when providing structured settlement services." Although Principle VI directs NSSTA members to:"…comply with all material federal and state laws and regulations applicable to the structured settlement services that are provided", NSSTA's Code of Ethics does not specifically address either fiduciary or product suitability standards.
By comparison with NSSTA, SSP's provides, in relevant part, that "[m]embership is open to all individuals with a genuine interest in the profession of settlement planning." However, "[c]andidates for membership must attest to their .......striving to ensure plans are consummated to a fiduciary standard." (emphasis added). Unlike NSSTA, almost all of SSP's members represent injury victims and their families and attorneys as opposed to defendants and liability insurers. Many SSP members also sell financial products as well as structured settlement annuities.
Plaintiff structured settlement brokers generally, and SSP members more specifically, regularly face direct competition from non-structured settlement financial advisors. Currently some financial advisors (Certified Financial Planners and Investment Advisors) are held to a fiduciary ("best interest") standard while other financial advisors (broker-dealers) provide services under a “suitability standard” which requires only a reasonable belief that any recommended product is suitable for a client.
Consumer protection concerns appear to be favoring broader application of the fiduciary standard. Acting under authority of Dodd-Frank, the SEC submitted a "fiduciary standard" study to Congress in 2011 recommending the adoption of a uniform fiduciary standard for investment advisers and broker-dealers when providing investment advice to retail customers. Congress has not yet adopted this uniform standard. More recently the U.S. Department of Labor has proposed a for all investment advice related to retirement assets.
For most of its history, the primary structured settlement market has developed its business standards and practices based upon a "claim management" model which limits the scope of its representatives' duties of care toward injury victims - the ultimate customers for its products. Within the larger "settlement planning" market, which encompasses structured settlements, fiduciaries and other participating professionals are superimposing a more demanding "best interest" duty of care. To successfully compete in the settlement planning market place, therefore, structured settlement professionals need to acquire a better understanding of fiduciary and UPIA duties and requirements - and learn to re-shape their product sales accordingly.