Trustee and successor trustee responsibilities and duties in California

Performing the duties of a trustee in California requires careful attention to details and compliance with fiduciary responsibilities.

Most people in California understand the importance of having an estate plan. During the estate planning process, the settlor - the person for whom the plan is created - chooses trusted individuals to perform tasks on their behalf in the event of incapacity or death. Following are the most common appointments in an estate plan:

  • Executor: Often referred to as a personal representative, the executor is a person you appoint in your will to wrap up your affairs as directed in your will.
  • Guardian: If you have minor children or provide for a person with special needs, a guardian is appointed in your will to oversee financial distribution and provide physical needs for those specified people.
  • Power of attorney: With a durable power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive, you designate a person (or two) who make financial and medical care decisions on your behalf in the event you become incapacitated.
  • Trustee and successor trustee: A trust is a legal entity into which you may place your assets and the trustee manages those assets. You may act as the trustee of your own trust during your life but, in the event of incapacity or death, your successor trustee takes over the duties as outlined in this private document.

While all of these appointed positions are very important, trustees have numerous fiduciary duties and legal responsibilities that often require the assistance of estate planning attorneys.

Trustee responsibilities

Upon the death or incapacity of a loved one who created a trust, the trustee must step in to manage the affairs of the settlor and administer the trust as instructed in the trust document and according to California laws.

Within the first year, the trustee is often very busy identifying and finding all of the assets in the trust. You cannot assume that all of the settlor's assets were legally transferred into the name of the trust. Guiding the family through the probate process often falls to the trustee along with numerous additional responsibilities.

Creditors and beneficiaries must receive notice in the event of a death, which often includes identifying and finding them as well. If a beneficiary is a minor, some assets may need to remain in the trust until distributions are made when that person reaches the age of majority or attains an age established in the trust.

Management of the assets during the trust administration is vitally important and carries the highest level risk of liability for the trustee. Mismanagement can lead to lawsuits by the beneficiaries. While many understand they must keep accurate accounting records during the process, they are also required to manage investments and sell properties if those assets are part of the trust.

A lawyer can help

The above are only a few examples of the duties and responsibilities of trustees. If you have been appointed as a trustee or a successor trustee for a loved one, seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. A lawyer knowledgeable about assisting trustees and beneficiaries can help.

Keywords: trustee, estate planning, probate