In §5.2 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (2022), we consider trusts whose remainders are to be determined by reference to formulas set out in intestate statutes, provisions such as “on the death of the life beneficiary, ownership passes to those who would be the heirs of the settlor”, or words to that effect. But what if the term “heirs” in a given situation were in fact intended to designate the estate of the settlor? Here, the doctrine of more worthy title can come into play. The Doctrine of Worthier Title, a vestige of Anglo-Norman feudal law, can 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 really intended to be the estate of A, then the only beneficiary of the trust is A. On the death of A, the property reverts to the estate of A in a resulting trust. A’s presumptive claimants do not take the title of B, the trustee, as “purchasers”. If they take at all, they take as beneficiaries of A’s probate estate, “by descent” so to speak. But they may in fact not take at all because A, having possessed an acquired right of reversion, could have transferred this right to a third party

Today, the Most Worthy Title Doctrine has become a building rule. In other words, what was the settlor’s intention? Does the term “heirs” designate his succession or is it an abbreviated formula for determining the remainders in the sense of Professor Casner’s more elaborate formula set out in §5.2 of the Manual? Some states have addressed the issue by creating legal presumptions. Massachusetts abolished the doctrine both as a rule of law and a rule of interpretation.

What is the practical concern of today’s trustee? Simply this: If the Most Worthy Title Doctrine is applicable in a given situation, A is the sole beneficiary. There are no other interests to consider. Thus, A may be able to revoke the trust, his creditors may reach the principal, and A may defeat the interests of his presumptive heirs in 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” into A. It should be noted that UPC §2-710 would completely abolish the doctrine, both as a rule of law and as a rule of construction. The Restatement (Third) of Trusts does not recognize such a rule of construction.

The Doctrine of Worthier Title’s claim for trust relates to the settlor’s heirs. The application of the trust rule in the Shelley case, another holdover from late Anglo-Norman feudal law, concerns the heirs of someone other than the settlor. The rule in Shelley’s Case trust application is the subject of §8.15.3 of Loring and Rounds: A Trustee’s Handbook (2022), the section of which 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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