Trustee responsibilities are extensive and they arise from different sources including the wording of the trust itself, statutes, and case law. Of course, you have to cover all areas of your trustee responsibility, but here is my list of primary issues that could keep me up at night as a trustee. If you are a trustee, you want to do it right. If you are a beneficiary, you want to receive that to which you are entitled. And there can be a lot of angst, stress, misunderstanding, and disagreement in these situations. A significant part of my practice includes trust, estate, and elder abuse litigation and disputes – including contentious administrations. This list is not in any particular order. You might also notice that I update and republish this discussion from time to time as it includes important points that can apply to most trust administrations.
- Do you understand what the trust says and requires? This might sound basic, but it isn’t always.
- Have you marshalled and safeguarded the assets that are in or that are supposed to be in the trust? Are the assets in the trust, and are they under your control?
- Do you really understand your legal responsibilities including not only the wording and requirements in the trust, but also what the probate code and case law require of you? As a trustee you are a fiduciary. You have one of the highest standards of care, responsibility, liability and unbiased fairness and good faith required by law.
- Do you have a game plan for the steps required to accomplish the administration of the trust, including the time and timing that it will take? Completing the administration typically takes longer than most people would think. And this alone can cause disagreements, stress, and disputes. There is a court case on this issue, and there are court cases on many of these issues – basically, the case held that a trustee needs to conduct the administration process reasonably expeditiously, but the court decided to not to say that the administration must be “fast” or “quick” or completed in the “fastest” manner. In other words, there is a degree of reasonableness here.
- Are the trust assets being invested, managed and recorded properly and prudently? You need to evaluate and manage the returns and the risks, in accord with the wording of the trust and your statutory and case law fiduciary duties. So, for example, the stock market goes up and down. If the market goes down, is your approach to the portfolio management designed to help you avoid liability for losses, not just because the market went down, but also because you have implemented a portfolio approach and might allow you to net losses against gains? And are your investments prudently diversified, also taking into consideration possible risks? You will find additional posts on this blog about investment responsibilities.
- Do you have and use the proper fiduciary demeanor and decision-making approach required of a trustee?
- Is the trust cash flow prudently managed? You might, for example, through no fault of your own have a trust with declining asset values or liquidity issues, or there might simply be expense and distribution timing issues.
- Do you know what to do if you have beneficiaries who are disagreeing with your decisions, or who are threatening litigation, or who have initiated litigation?
- Do you know what information you must or possibly should provide to the beneficiaries and when to provide it, including, for example, possible accountings and other information? Even if an accounting isn’t required, sometimes I recommend that a trustee prepare an accounting or some form of an accounting anyway. And, of course, under all circumstances you should and usually must keep accurate and complete records. Even if an accounting is not required, or is not required to be prepared to cover a particular period of time, it is not uncommon for courts to require that an accounting be prepared anyway. And, court and probate code compliant accountings include specific and detailed requirements.
- Do you understand that you have personal liability exposure for the actions that you take or don’t take as the trustee? You are required to be prudent with risk management. Also consider possible fiduciary insurance coverage although in most situations it isn’t required or necessary.
- Do you know what additional planning opportunities exist or might exist, such as for tax purposes? Similarly, are you aware of new or changing tax, probate code, planning, and investment statutes and rules? And have you calendared important planning and compliance dates?
- Do you know how to prudently handle distributions and the timing of distributions? Do you know how to wrap things up and conclude the administration?
- Do you know what to do if there is a dispute about how the administration is being handled? This is important. As a trustee you can get yourself into even greater difficulty depending on how you handle disputes and disagreements. And for administration attorneys, I have written about changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct that were implemented on November 1, 2018, and that should be considered in appropriate circumstances.
- And last on this list, are you represented by the necessary and appropriate professionals to advise you on your fiduciary duties, trust administration management, compliance, taxes, investments, insurance, asset protection and preservation, communicating with beneficiaries, and other important or possibly important issues?
Thanks for reading this post. Every trust situation is different. You do need to consult with professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation.
Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only
Blogs: California trust, estate, and elder abuse litigation and contentious administrations http://californiaestatetrust.com; D&O, audit committee, governance and risk management http://auditcommitteeupdate.com
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