By Matt Meuli
If a friend or family member has asked you to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death, you should feel honored—this means they consider you among the most honest, reliable, and responsible people they know.
However, being a trustee is not only a great honor, it’s also a major responsibility. The job can entail a wide array of complex duties, and you’re both ethically and legally required to effectively execute those functions or face significant liability. Given this, agreeing to serve as trustee is a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, and you should thoroughly understand exactly what the role requires before giving your answer.
Of course, a trustee’s responsibility can vary enormously depending on the size of the estate, the type of trust involved, and the trust’s specific terms and instructions. But every trust comes with a few core requirements, and here we’ll highlight some of the key responsibilities.
That said, one of the first things to note about serving as trustee is that the job does NOT require you to be an expert in law, finance, taxes, or any other field related to trust administration. In fact, trustees are not just allowed to seek outside assistance from professionals in these fields, they’re highly encouraged to, and funding to pay for such services will be set aside for this in the trust.
To this end, don’t let the complicated nature of a trustee’s role scare you off. Indeed, there are numerous professionals and entities that specialize in trust administration, and people with no experience with these tasks successfully handle the role all of the time. And besides, depending on who nominated you, declining to serve may not be a realistic or practical option.
Every trust is unique, and a trustee’s obligations and powers depend largely on what the trust creator, or grantor, allows for, so you should first carefully review the trust’s terms. The trust document outlines all the specific duties you’ll be required to fulfill as well as the appropriate timelines and discretion you’ll have for fulfilling these tasks.
Depending on the size of the estate and the types of assets held by the trust, your responsibilities as trustee can vary greatly. Some trusts are relatively straightforward, with few assets and beneficiaries, so the entire job can be completed within a few weeks or months. Others, especially those containing numerous assets and minor-aged beneficiaries, can take decades to completely fulfill. To ensure you understand exactly what a particular trust’s terms require of you as trustee, consult with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®.
Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the named beneficiaries at all times, and they must not use the position for personal gain. Moreover, they cannot commingle their own funds and assets with those of the trust, nor may they profit from the position beyond the fees set aside to pay for the trusteeship.
If the trust involves multiple beneficiaries, the trustee must balance any competing interests between the various beneficiaries in an impartial and objective manner for the benefit of them all. In some cases, grantors try to prevent conflicts between beneficiaries by including very specific instructions about how and when assets should be distributed, and if so, you must follow these directions exactly as spelled out.
However, some trusts leave asset distribution decisions up to the trustee’s discretion. If so, when deciding how to make distributions, the trustee must carefully evaluate each beneficiary’s current needs, future needs, other sources of income, as well as the potential impact the distribution might have on the other beneficiaries. Such duties should be taken very seriously, as beneficiaries can take legal action against trustees if they can prove he or she violated their fiduciary duties and/or mismanaged the trust.
Many trusts contain interest-bearing securities and other investment vehicles. If so, the trustee is responsible not only for protecting and managing these assets, they’re also obligated to make them productive—which typically means selling and/or investing assets to generate income.
In doing so, the trustee must exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when investing trust assets, otherwise known as the “prudent investor” rule. The trustee should always consider the specific purposes, terms, distribution requirements, and other aspects of the trust when meeting this standard.
Trustees must invest prudently and diversify investments appropriately to ensure they’re in the best interests of all beneficiaries. Given this, trustees are forbidden from investing trust assets in overly speculative or high-risk stocks and/or other investment vehicles. Unless specifically spelled out in the trust terms, it will be up to the trustee’s discretion to determine the investment strategies that are best suited for the trust’s goals and beneficiaries. If so, you should hire a financial advisor familiar with trusts to help guide you.
Given the unpredictable nature of the economy, it’s important to point out that poor performance of trust investments alone isn’t enough to prove a trustee breached his or her duties to invest prudently. Provided the trustee can show the underlying investment strategies were sound and reasonable, the mere fact that the investments lost money doesn’t make them legally liable.
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