SARASOTA, Fla. - You've been named the beneficiary of a trust fund. So what have you got to complain about? Your bank.
About 80 trust beneficiaries who gathered in this sunny resort town last weekend did just that. Their biggest beef: Banks take trust clients for granted because many lack the power to take their business elsewhere. In short, the beneficiaries legally lack "portability."
That term was the buzzword of the moment at this conference, organized by Heirs Inc., a nonprofit group that is pushing for trust and estate reform.
"We think the Holy Grail is to have portability - to have the ability to remove the trustee without burden of proof," said Standish H. Smith, organizer of the Villanova, Pa.-based group.
At issue are laws in many states that allow beneficiaries to switch trustees only if this authority was explicitly granted when the trust was created, or if they can prove that a trustee failed its fiduciary duty to a client.
Conference participants maintained that banks have gone overboard in trying to keep clients - and have even penalized customers who have highly restrictive trusts.
"We're almost convinced that if you have a portability clause in your trust, you're probably going to be charged less by your bank," Mr. Smith said. "That's crazy!"
A handful of states have made it easier for trust clients to move their accounts. California, for instance, allows beneficiaries to change trustees when a merger occurs.
Right now, Heirs Inc. is waging a lobbying battle for portability in Mr. Smith's home state of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Smith - himself a trust client - is pushing the general assembly to adopt a law giving beneficiaries the power to remove corporate and individual trustees. A favorable vote on Senate Bill 770 would be "a bellwether for the rest of the country," Mr. Smith said.
Though portability is clearly a hot button, it's not the only issue that makes heirs angry. Here are some other gripes from people who attended the Heirs Inc. conference:
*One man in his late 30s lamented that his trust officer was buying Pennsylvania tax-free municipal bonds - providing no tax benefits for the Maryland resident. He said his complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
*A brother and sister, beneficiaries of a single trust, complained that their accounts are being managed far too conservatively, producing returns of 6% and 3% for the year to date, respectively.
*A woman in her 40s said her trust bank was more concerned with preserving assets for the next generation than with meeting her need for current income. The problem, she maintained, is "remainderman" clauses included in many trusts, which govern how an estate passes from generation to generation. "The law says they're responsible to you first, but they hold that remainderman thing over my head," she said.
*One elderly man groused during a general session that capital from trust accounts is routinely being used to "jump-start" proprietary mutual funds at banks. His complaint drew a chorus of "Yeahs!" from audience members.
*Several participants complained that trust departments are experiencing too much personnel turnover, and worried that they have become a training ground for the rest of the bank.
But the participants were not just heaping criticism on banks. At one point, Mr. Smith singled out Philadelphia-based Glenmede Trust Corp. for praise, saying its policy of allowing trust customers to leave means "there are no unhappy campers."
Only three bankers braved the crowd. They huddled together at a Saturday evening cocktail party, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
Richard M. Zimmerman, a vice president at Bankers Trust Florida in Palm Beach, managed a nervous joke: "I'm one of the bad guys here."
"It's good to hear the perspective of beneficiaries," allowed Joan B. Kayser, vice president of trust administration in the Sarasota office of Northern Trust Co. of Florida.
For all its feisty ways, Mr. Smith said Heirs Inc. is more interested in negotiating with bankers than in fighting with them.
He has recruited Robert Wittman, a University of Connecticut law professor, to help the process along.
"There has never been a dialogue with the banks, and it's very hard to get them to talk," Mr. Wittman said. "Instinctively, they circle the wagons and fight off any kind of change."