Palm Springs Law Blog

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

So You Agreed to be a Trustee - Now What?

We help lots of clients with their estate plans, crafting Wills and Trusts and other documents that are designed to protect people and their assets. A revocable living trust is often a good choice because it provides for the smooth transfer of property if the owner becomes incapacitated or dies. It usually avoids handling the estate through a probate court, which is a public process that can be very costly and time-consuming.


For every trust, there must be a trustee  -  the person who is authorized to manage and control all the property in the trust. In a revocable living trust, the initial trustee is usually the person who created the trust (called the grantor or settlor) – the owner of the property transfers everything into the name of the trust, and then controls it as the trustee. A great advantage of a trust over just having a Will is that a successor trustee takes over if that person becomes incapacitated or passes away, and there is no need to go to probate court to have someone appointed. The successor trustee continues to manage the property in whatever way the terms of the trust require.  


For single individuals, or partners who are not married or registered domestic partners, the choice for a successor trustee is usually a relative, partner or friend. These people agree to be the trustee if and when something happens. Although the estate in a trust may not need to be probated, California has strict legal requirements for the performance of trustees and the management of trust property. It is very important that a successor trustee understand the role he or she will play, and the rules that must be followed.


Trusts can range in value from a few thousand to many millions of dollars. As you might expect, a successor trustee’s time and effort will be proportional to the complexity of the estate. But the legal requirements are the same, regardless of the value of the estate.

Most important is the responsibility of the trustee as a fiduciary – managing the assets in the trust for the benefit of others. Heirs and beneficiaries are usually named, and the trust states how the assets of the estate will be divided up among them after all bills are paid and other requirements met. The trustee is responsible for conserving the assets, growing them, if possible, and delivering the assets to the beneficiaries.


Most trustees are ordinary folks who have no experience with managing estates for other people, so they usually retain an attorney to help them administer the trust. Lots of details must be handled over a period of months or years. An estate planning attorney is familiar with all of the duties spelled out in the Trust Administration sections of the California Probate Code, and can assist the trustee with all of those administrative tasks.


Whether the trustee has an attorney or not, it is essential to document everything that happens. Notices of the trust administration and copies of the trust document must be sent to all beneficiaries and heirs. The estate must be valued on the date of death, which may require professional appraisals of personal and real property. Liquid assets such as cash, bank accounts and money market funds must be transferred into a trust account. All valid bills, invoices and other creditor claims must be paid out of this account, along with any expenses for maintaining property or administering the estate.


Account statements must be kept in order and reviewed regularly to track the continuing value of the estate. Investments need to be managed to avoid or minimize any losses. If there is real property, it may need to be sold and the proceeds deposited into the trust account, or be distributed directly to beneficiaries before the trust administration is closed.


Once all debts have been paid, and all assets are in the form required for distribution, there is usually a final accounting. This details everything that happened to estate assets from the first valuation on the date of death to the current date. Unless they waive it in writing, all beneficiaries and heirs are entitled to an accounting at least once a year. If the trust administration continues into additional years, an interim accounting must be sent out at the end of each year, and the final accounting is done just before distributions are made.


If the trustee does not have an attorney, it is strongly recommended that a CPA or other accounting professional be retained to prepare the accounting and handle the filing of required personal and estate tax returns. Failure to follow tax laws can result in serious losses to estate assets and to beneficiaries and heirs. 


Finally, distributions are made according to the terms of the trust. The trustee will write checks on the trust account for cash bequests, and transfer other personal and real property as required. At this point, the trustee may write a check to himself or herself for serving as trustee and administrator of the estate, if the trust terms permit it. The amount will be stated in the trust, or if not, will be determined by local customary fees based on the trustee’s detailed records of hours spent and tasks performed.


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