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Beneficiary Rights in California

California probate law protects the rights of will and trust beneficiaries. A beneficiary is someone who is legally entitled to receive assets by the terms of someone else's will or trust. Californians who create wills or trusts must name the beneficiaries of their will or trust. The beneficiary will inherit all or part of the estate's property. If you're a beneficiary in someone's will or trust, it is crucial to understand your rights under California law.

Heritage Legal frequently represents the interests of will and trust beneficiaries. As a member of the Trust & Estates Section of the California State Bar, founding attorney Christopher Heritage has the legal experience and practical skills to persuasively represent the interests of his clients. If you're concerned about someone violating your beneficiary rights, contact our office to set up your free initial consultation today.

Understanding the legal setup of California trusts is an important first step in understanding beneficiary rights. California law recognizes trusts as legal documents that own and control assets. The grantor or settlor of the trust is the person who creates the trust. The trust settlor appoints one or more trustees in the trust agreement. The trustees must carry out the trust's terms. The beneficiaries are those to whom the trust gives assets. Californians can set up many different types of trusts, such as living trusts, irrevocable trusts, charitable trusts, and more.

Trustees Owe Trust Beneficiaries Accurate and Timely Trust Payments

If you're a trust beneficiary, you have a right to receive payments specified in the trust agreement. The trust agreement typically clearly states when and how you as a beneficiary are to receive payments. In some cases, the trust agreement says that the trustee gets to decide when and how to pay you. The trustee must still make a decision about when and how to pay you that is in your best interest, not the trustee's best interest. Common violations of fiduciary duties suffered by beneficiaries include:

  • Not receiving the proper amount of payments from the trust
  • Inaccuracies in the accounting statement or record of trust payments
  • Not receiving the correct payment amount or receiving a delayed payment

Trustees Owe Beneficiaries a Right to an Annual Accounting

Under California law, trust beneficiaries have a right to a yearly account of all of the trust activities. The annual accounting should include detailed information about the expenses, income, and distributions or payments of the trust. Trustees must provide an accurate and thorough accounting each year unless the trust agreement specifies another time frame.

Trustees Must Act in the Beneficiary's Best Interest

The trustee cannot make decisions that benefit himself or herself personally. Instead, the trustee must administer the trust in the best interest of all of the beneficiaries. If the trust agreement includes more than one recipient, the trustee must treat them with impartiality. In other words, the trustee cannot make decisions that disproportionately benefit one beneficiary over another beneficiary.

For example, if a trustee sold an asset owned by the trust to himself or herself below fair market value, the trustee would be breaching his or her fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries. Likewise, if the trustee rented a house owned by the trust out to a relative for rent that is less than fair market value, he or she would be in breach of his or her duties.

The trustees must also take all reasonable steps possible to preserve property owned by the trust. If appropriate, the trustee has to invest the assets in the best way possible so that the trust assets grow. Finally, beneficiaries of the trust have a right to confidentiality. Trustees must keep the trust accounting and all other aspects of the trust confidential.

Beneficiaries of a California Will

Perhaps the most basic beneficiary right is a right to receive payment. If you're the beneficiary of someone's will, you have a right to be paid according to the terms of the will. Typically, the deceased will name an executor who will administer the estate of the deceased. If the deceased did not name an executor, the probate court would appoint a will administrator to the position.

The executor of the will has a fiduciary duty to make sure that the beneficiaries receive the payments to which they're entitled. If you're a named beneficiary in someone's will, you may have a valid legal claim for compensation if the executor:

  • Fails to give you the money, property or other assets that you’ve inherited
  • Gives you an amount of money or property that is lower than the amount specified in the will
  • Does not comply with the laws of the state of California when administering the estate
  • Fails to hire the necessary professionals such as lawyers or accountants to aid in the administration of the will
  • Fails to file the required petitions or documents with the court
  • Fails to ensure that the trust pays all expenses that are necessary to keep the assets of the estate secure such as insurance, utility bills, or mortgage payments
  • Fails to set up a brokerage or bank account, if required, to distribute payments to beneficiaries throughout the life of the estate
  • Fails to pay all necessary debts, fees, and taxes that the estate owes

Contact Our California Beneficiary Rights Attorneys

When estate executors or trustees violate the rights of beneficiaries, the beneficiaries may be able to file a legal claim for restitution or compensation. Attorney Christopher Heritage of Heritage Legal, PC has abundant experience bringing claims for breach of trust. He skillfully helps his clients enforce their beneficiary rights under California law. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation at his Palm Springs law office.


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