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Reservation of Special Power of Appointment in Deed Is Approved by Massachusetts Appeals Court in 2017 Case of Skye v. Hession

May 1, 2017

A special power of appointment is an estate planning technique whereby someone reserves or is given a limited power to make a change to who ultimately inherits and under what circumstances. (For more information in the elder law context, see Using Reserved Special Powers of Appointment in Medicaid Planning.)  In Skye v. Hession, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that the reservation and later exercise of a special power of appointment in a deed was valid.

There is not a lot of complex analysis in the decision.  The original owner of the real estate had wanted to transfer the real estate so that it would not be owned by her for MassHealth purposes in case of a long-term stay in a nursing home, but wanted to keep the right to change the shares received by her family. The person whose share was later reduced by the original owner’s will objected to the allowance of the will and filed a separate declaratory judgment action to have the right to make the change declared null and void.

This type of real estate transfer has been done in Massachusetts for decades, and it had not been challenged before.  The Court acknowledged that there was tension between moving the real estate out of the owner’s name and reserving the power to change who ultimately received it. The Court ruled that, because the owner had also reserved a life estate, the interests created by the deed were not “present possessory estates” but rather “remainder interests” which were “circumscribed by the reserved power of appointment,” and therefore what the persons received in the original deed were “fees simple defeasible.” Putting it in non-legalese, the Court ruled that a person can deed away real estate yet keep the right to change who will later receive it.

For Medicaid purposes, a deed with a reserved special power of appointment removes ownership from the original owner and does not allow the owner to take it back in any way, and thereby preserves the real estate in case of a long-term nursing home stay after the five-year lookback period.  In some states, elder law attorneys can go further, and the deed, known as a Ladybird deed or a deed with enhanced powers or an enhanced life estate, can reserve the right to sell the real estate or take it back. In Massachusetts, the most that can be reserved is a special power of appointment, as MassHealth regulations at 130 CMR 520.019(I)(1) treat a Ladybird deed as a revocable trust, which means that the real estate is therefore a countable asset for MassHealth purposes. (Note that a simple change in regulations in other states could do the same to all Ladybird deeds, as the owner who records a Ladybird deed never really gives up anything.)

Back in the early 1990’s, I had proposed a reserved special power of appointment in a deed as a valid Medicaid planning tool in articles published nationally (See, e.g., “Despite Medicaid Transfer Restrictions, the Home May Still Be Kept in the Family,” Estate Planning, March/April 1990; “Using Reserved Special Powers of Appointment in Medicaid Planning,” The ElderLaw Report, October 1990; and “Using Special Powers of Appointment in Medicaid Planning,” NAELA Quarterly, Spring 1992.)  The benefit of reserving such a power has always been that the person signing the deed can later adjust the deed based on changes in family dynamics, but in recent years there have been national legal developments causing a reserved special power of appointment in a deed to perhaps be preferable to a reserved life estate for tax purposes.  Both of these techniques under current law allow the recipients to obtain a step-up in basis for capital gains tax purposes upon the original owner’s death, but if Congress returns us to the modified carryover basis rules, which were federal tax law back in 2010, a reserved special power of appointment may allow maneuvering to achieve the desired step-up in basis. (See Which Powers of Appointment Are Eligible for a Step-up in Basis in 2010 under the Modified Carryover Basis Rules? and the blog posts linked therein.)

I would not be surprised if Skye v. Hession is appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) on an application for Further Appellate Review.  There weren’t many Massachusetts cases cited by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, but four of them were ancient (1825, 1829, 1838 and 1847), and in footnote 9, the Court declined to identify the type of defeasible fee in these remainder interests, which suggests that a deeper review of the transaction could be conducted if the SJC takes the case.  Ultimately, however, I think the case of Queler v. Skowron, 438 Mass. 304 (2002) will be controlling.  The Queler holding approved the equivalent of a general power of appointment (which is an even greater reservation by the original owner than a special power of appointment).  There were separate lots in the Queler deed, and the grantor of an attempted condominium reserved the right to take some of the lots back, then did so later, and the SJC approved the grantor’s retrieval of those lots. The SJC in Queler did not find that the reserved right to change the ownership was repugnant to the original grant, as was unsuccessfully argued by the disaffected party in Skye v. Hession.

Unfortunately, the case of Skye v. Hession deals only with the facts in that case, wherein the owner had also reserved a life estate in the deed. The question that this case seems to keep open is whether, for a reserved special power of appointment to have validity, a life estate is also needed in the deed so that the recipients only receive remainder interests. Where the Court in footnote 7 referred to a recipient’s interest in such a deed as a “present conditional ownership interest,” it seems likely that the same legal result would occur without the life estate in the deed.

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