If you are establishing an estate plan, it is likely that you will have a Revocable Living Trust (“Trust”) as the primary document that outlines who will receive your assets upon your death and what conditions, if any, will be placed on those assets. As many persons are aware, a Trust has numerous advantages over a will because upon the death of the owner(s) of the Trust, the surviving trustee of the Trust will have control and authority to distribute the estate of the deceased person without having to go to probate court. A will, by contrast, typically must receive Court approval and distribution of the assets occurs only after going through probate court and getting orders from the Court. The probate process of a will is expensive, time consuming, and is part of the public record.
When establishing a revocable trust you will be outlining your assets and who will receive those assets upon your death. You will also outline certain conditions that may be placed on your assets. For example, you may state that your children will receive an equal share of your estate upon your death and the death of your spouse but your children shall not receive a distribution if they have a drug or alcohol addiction or if they have a creditor who would cease the funds. The trust may also restrict distributions to minor children so that they don’t receive a large inheritance when they are 18.
One of the most significant decisions you will make when you establish your Trust is who will be the Trustee of your Trust upon your death. In most situations, you will be the trustee during your lifetime and if you have a spouse your spouse will be trustee if they survive you. However, you will need to select a successor Trustee of your Trust who will manage your estate following your death (and the death of your spouse, as applicable). This successor Trustee may be a family member, friend, bank or trust company, or an attorney or other professional. When determining who should be your Trustee, you should consider the following issues and factors.
- What Will the Trustee Do? The Trustee will need to undertake the following tasks.
- Typically will make funeral and burial arrangements along with family members (generally the Trust pays for these things).
- Inform family members and heirs of the estate plans of the deceased.
- Will pay off creditors and hire professional as needed to assist with the estate (accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, etc.).
- Determine assets. They will need to know the assets of the deceased in order to ensure that they are distributed to the heirs/beneficiaries of the Trust.
- Organize assets for distribution. This may include listing and selling real property. It will likely include coordinating the distribution of bank accounts and insurance policies. It will also include organizing and distributing personal effects (e.g. jewelry, furniture, art, personal effects). And finally, it may include the winding down, sell, or transfer of businesses.
- Size of the Estate. Most Trusts will list a family member as the Trustee of the estate and for estates of a couple million dollars or less this is generally a good fit. However, for estates over $3M you may want to consider listing a professional (attorney or law firm) as the successor trustee of your estate and for estates over $10M you may want to consider listing a trust company or bank as the trustee of your estate. Large estates can overwhelm a family member who has never handled such matters before and having a professional with experience can go a long way. The Trust will need to pay for these services (generally in the tens of thousands of dollars) so it isn’t typically advisable for smaller estates unless there is no other adequate family member of friend available.
- When to List Non-Family? If you have heirs/beneficiaries who are likely to disagree and cause contention, you may want to list a non-family member or a friend as the Trustee so that a third party can make decisions and so that you can avoid potential contention and litigation over your estate.
- Financial Expertise of the Trustee. If you are selecting a family member, choose one who has shown good financial skills over their life. If you’re selecting a child over another, consider their financial expertise, work background, location, and family dynamics in selecting one child as Trustee over another. Also, choose someone who is well organized and who is task oriented. The Trustee will have many things to accomplish and you want someone who will take care and responsibility for these things.
- Family Dynamics. All families are different and all situations are unique. As a result, you may select a brother or sister as your successor Trustee instead of choosing a child or other family member. This may be because your children are younger or because a sibling is better equipped to handle the administration of your estate.
- Trustee Compensation. If you are listing a family member as Trustee, they typically will serve without compensation but will be reimbursed for any expenses they incur while serving as Trustee. You may compensate them or give them something extra from the estate for taking on the responsibility but generally family members are listed to serve without compensation.
- Can an Heir/Beneficiary be a Trustee? Yes, you may have a beneficiary/heir serve as Trustee and this is very common. In fact, most persons who have adult children will list a child as the successor Trustee and this person will also typically be a beneficiary/heir. While there is some conflict of interest in this arrangement, the Trustee is bound to the terms of the Trust and can’t abuse that discretion for their own personal benefit.
- Should I Appoint Co-Trustees? Some persons will consider listing co-beneficiaries as successor Trustees. Typically, this is done as a way to involve more than one family member in the distribution of the estate so that one person doesn’t feel left out. While there can be some benefits to involving another person as Trustee (e.g. sharing the workload, combining skills of persons listed) it can cause contention and confusion as to who is doing what so be specific about their authority and responsibility if you are listing multiple trustee.
- Who is Most Commonly Listed as Trustee? Most persons with adult children will list one of their children as successor Trustee. Most persons with younger children will list a sibling or close friend as their successor Trustee.
Your Trustee has an important and critical task in managing your estate following your death. Choose wisely as they will need to make critical decisions that will effect your loved ones.