Selecting the trustee of your living trust

In selecting a successor trustee for a living trust, people often gloss over the complications involved and think in terms of such broad generalizations as who will “manage my estate” or “take care of my beneficiaries” or “settle my estate.” In reality, a trustee performs very specialized, complicated functions.

The trustee must prudently invest assets, consider distribution requests, keep accurate records, file tax returns, account and report to the beneficiaries, and carefully weigh often complex legal and tax issues. The trustee must obey strict, legal duties for the benefit of your beneficiaries, being financially liable to them if the trustee violates those fiduciary duties.

Being trustee is usually a time-consuming, frequently thankless job. Trustees often feel “overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated.”

Keep in mind that, for living trusts, a trustee is needed for at least three separate situations:

  1. First, who serves as trustee for you if you became incompetent?
  2. Second, who serves as trustee upon your death to administer and distribute your trust?
  3. Third, who serves as trustee of any ongoing trusts created on your death for your beneficiaries?

In each of those three contexts, successor trustees should be named.

The personal attributes of the trustee should be of paramount importance in the selection process. A trust that works for tax purposes will be of little benefit if an imprudently selected trustee dissipates the trust assets through poor administration.

In California, there are four possible choices for trustee:

  1. A family member;
  2. A trusted friend;
  3. A corporate trust department;
  4. A California private fiduciary.

As discussed below, each choice has advantages and disadvantages. Factors to consider include: reliability, integrity, and financial responsibility; willingness and ability to devote time to the job of trustee; relationship to the beneficiaries; personal dynamics among the beneficiaries; judgment, experience, impartiality, and potential for conflict of interest; and the size and type of trust assets.

Unlike an “outsider,” a family member knows you and the personalities involved. A family member may also serve for free, although my experience is they usually are paid.  However, there can be significant disadvantages to having a family member as trustee. The family member may lack experience in the crucial functions performed by a trustee. The family member trustee may be subject to pressure or influence by beneficiaries. Throwing a family member in the middle of family hostilities by naming him or her as trustee could become a ticking time bomb that eventually may explode. Will the family member tirelessly withstand the beneficiary who is constantly asking for funds?  Will the family member resist the temptation to play favorites among beneficiaries? The very intimacy that seems to make a family member an ideal choice can be a burden and disadvantage sometimes. Also, conflicts of interest may arise when the family member is both a trustee and a co-owner of trust property or a beneficiary.

In considering a trusted friend as an option, be mindful that being a trustee for someone else’s trust is time-intensive and can entail a high degree of personal liability. A friend should not be expected to serve as trustee for free. As with a family member, the trusted friend probably is inexperienced in trust administration and will require assistance from a lawyer, an accountant, and possibly a financial advisor.

A corporate trust department employs individuals with specialized training and experience in all the diverse areas involved in trust management and administration. A trust department employs lawyers, tax specialists, investment professionals, and trust administrators. This team of individuals should possess a higher degree of knowledge across all these areas than almost any one individual. A corporate trustee provides neutral and objective supervision, treating all beneficiaries in the same way. Corporate trustees also have the accounting and record keeping capabilities required for trust administration. They can provide accounting which distinguishes between principal and income and can track investment information, such as cost basis and current yield.  Certainly, a corporate trustee will charge a fee for serving. That fee should be compared against the fee charged by an individual trustee plus the accountant and attorney’s fees incurred by the individual trustee.

In California, another option involves nominating a California private fiduciary as trustee. As with corporate trustees, private fiduciaries could be interviewed, with their potential services and fees described. (See Professional Fiduciary Association of California’s web page http://www.pfac-pro.org  and Department of Consumer Affairs Professional Fiduciaries Website  http://www.fiduciary.ca.gov.)

Your trustee is bound by several legal duties, including the duty to be prudent, the duty of loyalty, and the duty of impartiality. Other duties include the duty to identify and collect property, to protect property, to account to your beneficiaries, to delegate wisely, and to carry out the purposes of your trust. These are complicated duties. A trustee can be held personally liable for losses that occur if such a fiduciary duty is violated.

In selecting a trustee, ask yourself these questions: (1) Is the trustee capable of handling the types of assets that will be held in the trust?; (2) Is the trustee capable of, and inclined to, resolve problems that may arise with the trust and its beneficiaries?; (3) Is the trustee capable of managing the trust investments?; (4) Will the trustee be able to devote the time and attention needed to avoid problems?; (5) How well will the trustee get along with the beneficiaries? Will there be hostility or antagonism between the trustee and a beneficiary?; (6) Is the trustee capable of communicating with the beneficiaries?; (7) Will the trustee’s greed prevent proper trust administration?; (8) Will the beneficiaries respect and accept the trustee?; (9) Is the trustee capable of understanding and fulfilling the fiduciary duties and responsibil­ities of trusteeship?; (10) Is the proposed trustee likely to suffer major personal problems (health, family, or financial)?; (11) Do the beneficiaries have inflated ideas of their financial needs?  If so, can the trustee handle them?; and (12) What compensation may the trustee receive?

Some clients prefer the option of the successor trustee working in conjunction with special trustees. For example, if you nominate a corporate trust department or California private fiduciary as trustee, you could nominate as special trustees the individuals in your life whose judgment you trust. Those individuals could be given many powers over the trustee. For example, the special trustees could nominate the trust department or private fiduciary to serve as trustee, fire that trustee, and replace it with another trust department or private fiduciary as trustee. The special trustees could be entitled to regular accountings and status reports.  You could also require the trustee to confer with the special trustees prior to any significant changes to the trust assets. Special trustees could even be given a veto power over the trustee’s proposed actions.   (You can also use this special trustee concept when your trustee is a family member or friend.)

Copyright James J. Phillips January 2017