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January 01, 2017 Article 4 min read
Trust administration and estate settlement can be daunting. It’s one thing to accept this position of honor in theory; it’s another to carry out the myriad of responsibilities at hand. So what’s the best option? Using a family member? A trusted advisor? A professional trustee?

Woman eating breakfast and looking at her tabletWhat are a trustee’s responsibilities?

A critical component of any estate plan is selecting an appropriate trustee. There are several options, most commonly, a family member, a trusted advisor, or a professional trustee. While virtually any adult could serve as trustee, the role comes with significant responsibility. Trustees must be able to:

  • Perform comprehensive document review and file documentation for assured compliance with all trust provisions.
  • Provide regular communication and accounting to all beneficiaries.
    Inventory and value trust assets.
    Calculate and disburse income and other distributions. .
  • Collect benefits and pay bills, as well as notify potential and known creditors.
  • Manage income and principal cash, using discretion appropriately and fairly.
  • Develop an Investment Policy Statement that is consistent with the trust’s purpose..
  • Select and monitor investments for the assets, or partner with a professional advisory firm to manage assets..
  • Minimize taxes and ensure that all tax returns, including 1041s and estate tax returns, are filed in a timely manner..
  • Handle special assets such as real estate, partnerships, and family-owned businesses..
  • Seek legal interpretations when necessary to ensure that both intent and wishes are met.

A good trustee must come equipped with unquestionable ethics, financial savvy, orderly recordkeeping skills, and sensitivity to emotional and financial needs. Add to these requirements someone who truly knows what a trustee’s duties and responsibilities are, someone who will do so efficiently and economically, someone who indeed has the time, and most importantly, someone who is willing to act as trustee and will continue to do so in the future.

Using a family member as a trustee

A family member could be part of the immediate or extended family. It should be someone with sound judgment and dependability. As a trustee, they cannot favor one beneficiary over another, assets cannot be used for the trustee’s benefit, and they must be kept separate.

Pros Cons
Understands the family dynamic. Can disrupt family harmony, with real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Can facilitate meetings and encourage communication among family members. Might not have the requisite expertise and/or time to carry out the administrative components necessary to serve as trustee.
Works best when there’s a respected, agreed-upon family spokesperson who can represent the entire family and its best interests. With that lack of experience and/or time comes cost — from family investment advisors to CPAs to property managers. In the end, this could be more expensive than hiring a professional trustee to oversee all aspects of estate settlement.
Trustees are entitled to reasonable compensation for their services. Lack of continuity for future generations.
  No oversight/checks and balances to ensure estate plan goals/objectives are met.

Using a trusted advisor as a trustee

A trusted advisor could be an attorney, financial planner, or other member of a family’s inner circle.

Pros Cons
May understand family history, dynamics, and objectives/goals. Possibly lacks the time, energy, or resources to fully attend to roles and responsibilities, as this is likely the individual’s “second job.”

More fully aware of original purpose and intent. This is critical to trust administration. May not have experience or an understanding of the responsibilities associated with being a trustee (especially regarding investment oversight); this could be a burdensome responsibility.
Could have intimate knowledge of a specific asset owned by the grantor, such as a family-owned business or collections; this knowledge would be imperative to estate administration. Continuity for future generations could be interrupted.
  No oversight/checks and balances to ensure estate plan goals and objectives are met.

 Using a professional trustee

A professional trustee can be found in traditional banks, family-owned private trust companies, or in independent wealth management trust companies.

Pros Cons
Peace of mind that the directions will be carried out according to the estate plan, by an unbiased professional. Possibility of getting “locked into” a particular professional trustee.
Sophistication — professional trustees will have the right resources to provide for your family, even beyond estate management as they address succession planning, charitable gift planning, budgeting, and more. May not have the same level of relationship with the family as a friend or trusted advisor.
Your wishes are executed securely and privately, without disrupting family harmony. Cost is often perceived as prohibitive, or simply misunderstood.
Oversight — professional trustees are subjected to regulatory examination, audits, and have dual controls in place to assure accountability.  
Convenience and continuity with current family advisors.  
Overall costs are consolidated, controlled, and leveraged by a third-party service provider, typically resulting in savings.  

As you can see, each option has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to remember, however, that the best answer could be a combination of trusted advisor and professional trustee, or friend and professional trustee.

Understanding the responsibilities that accompany the role, as well as the potential pros and cons associated with a friend, trusted advisor, and professional trustee, will allow you to open discussions to ultimately arrive at the best decision for you and your family.