Being a Successor Trustee is no easy job
If you create a living trust, you will usually need to nominate two or three people to serve as your "successor trustees" in the event you can no longer manage your own trust. Think of a successor trustee like a "vice president" and you are the "president." In most cases, you are the initial trustee of your own living trust. If you cannot serve, your successor trustees take over, in the order that you have selected them.
It is certainly acceptable to name more than one trustee. In fact, many people choose to name "co-trustees" in which case the trustees must generally serve together. Generally speaking, I advise clients to select one trustee at a time since too many "chefs in the kitchen" can cause unintended problems.
Being a trustee is a difficult job. You have to follow the rules of the living trust and act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. In some cases, the successor trustee may also be a beneficiary. Most people who are acting as the trustee of a trust have never done so before. You have to select people that you know will follow your rules as outlined in your living trust. Remember that a living trust generally has no court supervision. In fact, one of the reasons people create a living trust is to avoid the court system. So while a trustee doesn't have to act with court supervision, that doesn't mean they get to do whatever they want. There are still some general rules and protocols they need to follow. The California probate code outlines some of those rules and guidelines.
An estate planning attorney can help a successor trustee after the death of a loved one. How formal the process will be may depend on the family circumstances and other unique issues. Many trustees don't realize they can be personally liable if they breach their fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries. In some cases, if there is enough at stake, some trustees will choose to obtain insurance (yes, they sell insurance for trustees).
When we prepare an estate plan for our clients, we provide detailed instructions for the successor trustees to follow. Essentially, we tried to give them a step-by-step manual that assists them in resolving the living trust after the client passes away. At the very least, the trustees will have a checklist of things to review and consider. In some cases, not every action item will be applicable, but it's still nice to have such a checklist. We also ask our clients to bring their successor trustees (or at least their first pick) to their final meeting so we can brief them on the plan and what may be required of them. The successor trustee can also ask questions during that meeting.
The most important thing a successor trustee can do is NOT to act impulsively or start distributing all the assets immediately. The best thing to do is to be methodical and careful. A trustee's actions should be deliberate and done after consultation with an attorney. Even if the estate is very simple, we generally think it is a good idea to meet with the attorney to have an informational meeting. The attorney might be able to advise the successor trustee of issues he/she may never have considered. When it comes to resolving in the estate, sometimes a successor trustee might do something that cannot be fixed. As such, it is best to proceed carefully and thoughtfully. There is usually no tremendous rush to resolve the estate and consulting with legal and financial professionals is usually the best course of action.
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