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By: Scott Grossman on October 9th, 2023

Can a Trustee Be Held Personally Liable?

The short answer is yes. Trustees owe trust beneficiaries the highest legal duty possible, a fiduciary duty. A trustee must adhere to their fiduciary responsibilities or simply the trustee’s duties, and if they do not, they are liable for any mishandling of the trust. 

That means that a trustee must prudently manage the trust for the sole benefit of the beneficiaries and always act in the best interests of those beneficiaries. Because trustees are fiduciaries, beneficiaries can sue them for breach of fiduciary duties if they believe the trustee has made an error or otherwise mishandled the trust.

Some common problems that could lead to a trustee being held personally liable include:

  • Refraining from making required distributions to the beneficiaries.
  • Failing to provide an accounting of trust activity.
  • Mismanaging trust property.
  • Making poor investment decisions or failing to invest at all.
  • Paying taxes late or incurring other avoidable fees or penalties.
  • Showing one beneficiary preferential treatment.
  • Self-dealing or avoiding conflicts of interest.
  • Stealing or embezzling trust property.

Trust administration process

Trust administration is how a trustee manages and carries out the instructions outlined in a trust agreement. It involves various tasks and responsibilities crucial to ensuring the trust’s assets are properly managed and distributed according to the grantor’s wishes.

The trust administration process typically starts with identifying the trust assets and creating an inventory. The trustee must then gather all necessary financial and legal documents related to the trust, including bank statements, property deeds, and investment account statements.

Once the assets have been identified and the necessary documents have been collected, the trustee must evaluate and manage the investments the trust holds. That may involve making investment decisions, monitoring market trends, and consulting financial advisors. The trustee must act in the best interest of the beneficiaries and exercise prudent judgment when managing the trust’s investments.

In addition to managing investments, the trustee is responsible for addressing any outstanding debts or liabilities of the trust. That includes paying off unpaid bills, filing tax returns, and settling disputes or claims against the trust.

Finally, as the trust agreement outlines, the trustee is responsible for distributing the trust assets to the beneficiaries. That may involve selling assets, transferring property titles, or making cash distributions. The trustee must ensure that all distributions are made in accordance with the trust’s terms and that the beneficiaries receive their rightful share.

Trustee legal liability 

As a trustee, specific legal obligations must be upheld throughout the trust administration process. These obligations are derived from the trust agreement and state laws and regulations governing trust administration.

One of the primary legal obligations of a trustee is the duty of loyalty. That means that the trustee must act solely in the best interests of the beneficiaries and avoid any conflicts of interest. The trustee must not self-deal or use the trust assets for personal gain.

Another legal obligation of a trustee is the duty of prudence. This duty requires the trustee to exercise reasonable care, skill, and caution when managing the trust assets. The trustee must make informed investment decisions, diversify investments to minimize risk, and regularly monitor the performance of the trust’s investments.

In addition to the duty of loyalty and prudence, trustees must also administer the trust following its terms. That means the trustee must carry out the instructions outlined in the trust agreement and distribute them to the beneficiaries as directed. The trustee must also keep accurate records of all trust transactions and provide regular accountings to the beneficiaries.

Trustee liability

Trustee liability refers to the legal responsibility and potential financial consequences that a trustee may face if they fail to fulfill their obligations or breach their fiduciary duty. Trustees can be held personally liable for any losses or damages the trust or its beneficiaries suffered due to their actions or omissions.

Trustee liability can arise in various situations, such as when a trustee mismanages trust assets, engages in self-dealing, or fails to distribute to the beneficiaries as required. If a breach of trust occurs, beneficiaries or other interested parties may file a lawsuit against the trustee to seek damages and hold them accountable.

However, it is essential to note that not all trustee actions will result in liability. Trustees are generally protected if they act prudently, in good faith, and following the terms of the trust. They may also be able to seek indemnification for any losses incurred due to their actions coming from the trust.

Trustee fiduciary duty

One of a trustee’s core responsibilities is to uphold their fiduciary duty to the trust’s beneficiaries. A fiduciary duty is a legal and ethical obligation to act in the best interests of another party and to exercise loyalty, care, and good faith in their actions.

As a fiduciary, a trustee must always prioritize the interests of the beneficiaries over their interests. They must act with honesty, integrity, and transparency in all matters related to the trust administration process.

One key aspect of the fiduciary duty is the duty of loyalty. That requires the trustee to avoid any conflicts of interest and to act solely in the best interests of the beneficiaries. The trustee must not use their position for personal gain or engage in any transactions that would compromise their loyalty to the beneficiaries.

Another aspect of the fiduciary duty is the duty of care. This duty requires the trustee to exercise the same standard of care, skill, and diligence as a prudent person in managing their affairs. The trustee must make informed decisions, seek professional advice when necessary, and regularly monitor the performance of the trust’s investments.

20 Trustee Duties 

Being a trustee carries with it a range of important duties and responsibilities. These duties are essential to ensure the proper administration of a trust and the protection of the beneficiaries’ interests. Some of the critical duties of a trustee include:

  1. Duty to Not Delegate Tasks
  2. Duty not to become a Trustee of a second Trust if that second trust has some conflict with the First Trust
  3. Duty to administer the trust according to its terms
  4. Duty to account
  5. Duty to separate and identify Trust Property
  6. Duty to deal impartially with all Beneficiaries
  7. Duty to invest and manage Trust Assets
  8. Duty of compensation not impacting the Standard of Care
  9. Duty to use special skills
  10. Duty to diversify Trust assets
  11. Duty to Review Trust Assets
  12. Duty to adhere to a strict standard of care
  13. Duty to manage Trust Property Productively
  14. Duty to Protect and Preserve Trust Property
  15. Duty to avoid conflict of interest
  16. Duty to Loyalty 
  17. Co-Trustee’s Duties 
  18.  Duty not to demand a release of liability 
  19. What is the Prudent Investor Rule? 
  20. Beneficiary’s right to get a copy of the trust

These duties require a trustee to act diligently, prudently, and follow the trust terms. Failure to fulfill these duties can result in legal and financial consequences for the trustee.

Is your trustee following through with their duties?

A trustee has a range of responsibilities that they must diligently carry out, ensuring the effective administration of a trust. These responsibilities include:

  • Identifying and managing the trust assets
  • Gathering and organizing all necessary financial and legal documents
  • Evaluating and managing the trust’s investments
  • Addressing any outstanding debts or liabilities of the trust
  • Distributing the trust assets to the beneficiaries as directed
  • Maintaining accurate records of all trust transactions
  • Providing regular accountings to the beneficiaries
  • Communicating with the beneficiaries and keeping them informed about the trust’s administration
  • Filing tax returns and paying any taxes owed by the trust
  • Resolving any disputes or claims against the trust

These responsibilities require a trustee to thoroughly understand the trust agreement and the applicable laws and regulations governing trust administration. Trustees must also possess strong organizational and communication skills to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations effectively.

More on your Trustee breaching their fiduciary duties

If you would still like some more information on Trust Litigation and removing a Trustee, check out our complete Overview of California Trust Litigation, available on our website. And if you have more questions about your rights as a Beneficiary and what you should know moving forward.

It’s best to reach out as soon as possible. The longer you take, the more damage your Trust could take. Please call us at (888) 443-6590, and we would be more than happy to see if we can assist you.

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