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Ensuring Robust Asset Protection Trusts: Key Strategies and Common Pitfalls

Posted by James Burns | Jul 05, 2024 | 0 Comments

Annually, California processes a substantial volume of civil lawsuits. Specifically, in recent years, California's courts have managed millions of cases, illustrating the state's extensive legal activity.

These statistics underscore the importance of robust legal strategies, particularly in asset protection, where the risk of litigation is significant. For individuals and businesses in California and nationwide, understanding the frequency and nature of these lawsuits can provide valuable context for the necessity of sound legal planning and asset protection measures.

Asset protection trusts are pivotal in safeguarding assets from creditors and legal challenges. According to the American Bar Association, asset protection strategies are increasingly scrutinized by courts, highlighting the need for meticulous planning and execution. Drawing lessons from landmark cases like FTC v. Affordable Media, LLC (1999), we can identify robust strategies to strengthen trust structures.

Independent Trustee

Actionable Tip: Always appoint an independent trustee who has no existing personal or business relationships with the trustor. This appointment not only ensures unbiased management but also significantly enhances the trust's credibility in legal scrutiny.

Mistake to Avoid: Avoid appointing family members or close associates as trustees. This can lead to a perception of undue influence or control, much like in the Anderson case where the trustors were deemed to have retained control, leading to the trust's failure in protecting assets.

Example: Imagine a trust where the trustor appoints their best friend as the trustee. Under pressure, the friend might make decisions favoring the trustor, which could be challenged in court as not truly independent, thus risking the trust's integrity.

Relevant Law: Under California Probate Code Section 16000, trustees are obligated to administer the trust solely in the interest of the beneficiaries, underscoring the need for independence.

Protector Mechanism

Actionable Tip: Integrate a protector into the trust structure to provide oversight over the trustee's actions. Ensure this protector is legally independent of the trustor to maintain the trust's validity.

Mistake to Avoid: Do not give the protector powers that could be seen as an extension of the trustor's wishes, such as directing investments or distributions. This can mimic direct control and weaken the trust's defense against external claims.

Example: Consider a trust with a protector who oversteps by regularly instructing the trustee on asset distributions to specific beneficiaries. This could be construed as the trustor indirectly controlling the trust, similar to direct management.

Distribution Committee

Actionable Tip: Form a distribution committee comprising members who have no prior personal or professional ties with the trustor. This body should have the authority to make independent distribution decisions based on the trust's terms and the beneficiaries' needs.

Mistake to Avoid: Avoid having the trustor as a part of this committee. Their presence can be seen as retaining control over the trust's operations, which is a direct violation of the principle of relinquishment of control.

Example: A trust where the distribution committee decides without any input from the trustor to distribute funds for a beneficiary's education expense showcases genuine independence.

Limited Powers of Appointment

Actionable Tip: Clearly define and limit the trustor's powers within the trust deed. Specify that the trustor cannot revoke the trust or direct assets for their personal benefit.

Mistake to Avoid: Allowing the trustor to retain extensive powers, such as the ability to dismiss trustees or redirect trust assets, can lead to a court deeming these powers as retaining control.

Example: If a trustor retains the power to dissolve the trust at will, it could be argued that the trust is merely an extension of their personal assets, vulnerable to creditor claims.

Anti-Duress Clause

Actionable Tip: Incorporate an anti-duress clause that automatically suspends the trustor's powers if they are under legal pressure to act against the trust's interests.

Mistake to Avoid: Failing to include this clause can leave the trust exposed to actions where the trustor is compelled to repatriate assets under legal or personal pressure.

Example: If a trustor faces a court order to liquidate trust assets to satisfy personal debts, an anti-duress clause can prevent this, maintaining the trust's integrity.

Explicit Discretionary Terms

Actionable Tip: Ensure the trust deed explicitly states that all distributions are at the trustee's sole discretion, without any influence from the trustor.

Mistake to Avoid: Avoid any language that implies the trustor has a say in the distribution of assets, as this can be used to challenge the trust's purpose.

Example: A trust deed that specifies the trustee can only distribute funds for healthcare emergencies without any input from the trustor illustrates a clear, independent decision-making process.


Asset protection trusts, when properly structured, provide a robust defense against creditors and legal challenges. By adhering to these strategies and avoiding common pitfalls, you can significantly enhance the effectiveness of your trust.

For expert guidance on establishing a solid asset protection trust in Aliso Viejo, Orange County, and throughout California, consider consulting with the Law Office of James Burns. With over 24 years of experience, James Burns can help you navigate the complexities of trust law to safeguard your assets effectively. Contact us at (949) 305-8642 or visit our website at

About the Author

James Burns

Estate Planning, Asset Protection, Business and Real Estate Transactions, nutraceutical Law and franchising:


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