A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” If you have been appointed the trustee of a trust, this is a strong vote of confidence in your judgment and integrity. Unfortunately, it is also a major responsibility. Following is a brief overview of your duties:
- Fiduciary Responsibility. As a trustee, you stand in a “fiduciary” role with respect to the beneficiaries of the trust, both the current beneficiaries and any “remaindermen” named to receive trust assets upon the death of those entitled to income or principal now. As a fiduciary, you will be held to a very high standard, meaning that you must pay even more attention to the trust investments and disbursements than you would for your own accounts.
- The Trust’s Terms. Read the trust itself carefully, both now and when any questions arise. The trust is your road map and you must follow its directions, whether about when and how to distribute income and principal or what reports you need to make to beneficiaries.
- Investment Standards. Your investments must be prudent, meaning that you cannot place money in speculative or risky investments. In addition, your investments must take into account the interests of both current and future beneficiaries. For instance, you may have a current beneficiary who is entitled to income from the trust. He or she would be best off in most cases if you invested the trust funds to generate as much income as possible. However, this may be detrimental to the interest of later beneficiaries who would be happiest if you invested for growth. In addition to balancing the interests of the various beneficiaries, you must consider their future financial needs. Does a trust beneficiary anticipate buying a house or going to school? Will she be depending on the trust income for retirement in 15 years? All of these questions need to be considered in determining an investment plan for the trust. Only then can you start considering the propriety of individual investments.
- Distributions. Where you have discretion on whether or not to make distributions to a beneficiary you need to evaluate his current needs, his future needs, his other sources of income, and your responsibilities to other beneficiaries before making a decision. And all of these considerations must be made in light of the size of the trust. Often the most important role of a trustee is the ability to say “no” and set limits on the use of the trust assets. This can be difficult when the need for current assistance is readily apparent.
- Accounting. One of your jobs as trustee is to keep track of all income to, distributions from, and expenditures by the trust. Generally, you must give an account of this information to the beneficiaries on an annual basis, though you need to check the terms of the trust to be sure. In strict trust accounting, you must keep track of and report on principal and income separately.