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, but 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.
Adhere to the trust’s terms
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.
Act in the best interests of the beneficiaries
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.
Personally administer the trust
While trustees are nearly always permitted to hire outside advisers like lawyers, accountants, and even professional trust administration services, trustees must personally communicate with those advisors and be the one to make all final decisions on trust matters. After all, the grantor chose you as trustee because they value your judgment.
So even though trustees can delegate much of the underlying legwork, they’re still required to serve as the lead decision maker. What’s more, trustees are ultimately responsible if any mistakes are made. In the end, a trustee’s full range of powers, duties, and discretion will depend on the terms of the trust, so always refer to the trust for specific instructions when delegating tasks and/or making tough decisions. And if you need help understanding what the trust says, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for support.
Clear communication with beneficiaries
To keep them informed and updated as to the status of the trust, trustees are required to provide beneficiaries with regular information and reports related to trust matters. Typically, trustees provide such information on an annual basis, but again, the level of communication depends on the trust’s terms.
In general, trustees should provide annual status reports with complete and accurate accounting of the trust’s assets. Moreover, trustees must permit beneficiaries to personally inspect trust property, accounts, and any related documents if requested. Additionally, trustees must provide an annual tax return statement (Schedule K-1) to each beneficiary who’s taxed on income earned by the trust.
Entitled to reasonable fees for services rendered
Given such extensive duties and responsibilities, trustees are entitled to receive reasonable fees for their services. Oftentimes, family members and close friends named as trustee choose not to accept any payment beyond what’s required to cover trust expenses, but this all depends on the trustee’s particular situation and relationship with the grantor and/or beneficiaries.
What’s more, determining what’s “reasonable,” can itself be challenging. Entities like accounting firms, lawyers, banks, and trust administration companies typically charge a percentage of the funds under their management or a set fee for their time. In the end, what’s reasonable is based on the amount of work involved, the level of funds in the trust, the trust’s other expenses, and whether or not the trustee was chosen for their professional experience. Consult with us if you need guidance about what would be considered reasonable in your specific circumstance.
Since the trustee’s duties are comprehensive, complex, and foreign to most people, if you’ve been asked to serve as trustee, it’s critical you have a professional advisor who can give you a clear and accurate assessment of what’s required of you before you accept the position. And if you do choose to serve as trustee, it’s even more important that you have someone who can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process.