Being asked by a loved one to serve as trustee for their trust upon their death can be quite an honor, but it’s also a major responsibility—and the role is definitely not for everyone. Indeed, serving as a trustee entails a broad array of duties, and you are both ethically and legally required to properly execute those duties or face potential liability.

In the end, your responsibility as a trustee will vary greatly depending on the size of the estate, the type of assets covered by the trust, the type of trust, how many beneficiaries there are, and the document’s terms. In light of this, you should carefully review the specifics of the trust you would be managing before making your decision to serve.

And remember, you don’t have to take the job.

Yet, depending on who nominated you, declining to serve may not be an easy or practical option. On the other hand, you might actually enjoy the opportunity to serve, so long as you understand what’s expected of you.

To that end, this article offers a brief overview of what serving as a trustee typically entails. If you are asked to serve as trustee, feel free to contact us to support you in evaluating whether you can effectively carry out all the duties or if you should politely decline.

A trustee’s primary responsibilities

Although every trust is different, serving as trustee comes with a few core requirements. These duties primarily involve accounting for, managing, and distributing the trust’s assets to its named beneficiaries as a fiduciary.

As a fiduciary, you have the power to act on behalf of the trust's creator and beneficiaries, always putting their interests above your own. Indeed, you have a legal obligation to act in a trustworthy and honest manner, while providing the highest standard of care in executing your duties.

This means that you are legally required to properly manage the trust and its assets in the best interest of all the named beneficiaries. And if you fail to abide by your duties as a fiduciary, you can face legal liability. For this reason, you should consult with us for a more in-depth explanation of the duties and responsibilities a specific trust will require of you before agreeing to serve.

Regardless of the type of trust or the assets it holds, some of your key responsibilities as trustee include:

  • Identifying and protecting the trust assets
  • Determining what the trust’s terms require in terms of management and distribution of the assets
  • Hiring and overseeing an accounting firm to file income and estate taxes for the trust
  • Communicating regularly with beneficiaries
  • Being scrupulously honest, highly organized, and keeping detailed records of all transactions
  • Closing the trust when the trust terms specify

No experience necessary

It’s important to point out that being a trustee 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 only allowed to seek outside support from professionals in these areas, they’re highly encouragedto do so, and the trust estate will pay for you to hire these professionals.

So even though serving as a trustee may seem like a daunting proposition, you won’t have to handle the job alone. And you are also able to be paid to serve as trustee of a trust.

That said, many trustees, particularly close family members, often choose to forgo any payment beyond what’s required to cover the trust expenses, if that’s possible. But how you are compensated will depend on your personal circumstances, your relationship with the trust’s creator and beneficiaries, as well as the nature of the assets in the trust.

We can help

Because serving as a trustee involves such serious responsibility, you should meet with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, for help deciding whether or not to accept the role. We can offer you a clear, unbiased assessment of what's required of you based on the trust’s terms, assets, and beneficiaries.

And if you do choose to serve, it’s even more important that you have someone who can assist you with the trust’s administration. We can guide you step-by-step throughout the entire process, ensuring you properly fulfill all of the trust creator’s wishes without exposing the beneficiaries—or yourself—to any unnecessary risks. Contact us today to learn more.

Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact us to schedule your Family Wealth Planning Session. Even if you already have a plan in place, we will review it and help you bring it up to date to avoid heartache for your family. Schedule online today.

About David Talley

David Talley is a Business, Estate, and Legacy Planning attorney in Lake Forest, California, and founder of TrustCounsel PC. His passion is applying digital technologies that improve the practice and delivery of legal services. Having worked in-house for Panasonic Eco Solutions HQ in Japan from 2004-2016, David brings deep business experience and a global mindset to every project, and every estate plan, he supports.