6 Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability of Being a Trustee (Part 2) by Rob Cohen

Here are the additional tips continued from “BEING A TRUSTEE IS A THANKLESS JOB: Six Tips on How to Handle the Responsibility and Potential Liability (Part 1)” that might help make your trustee-ship progress more smoothly.

4) Examine the inventory. It is not uncommon for people to set up trusts and then do nothing, assuming that since the documents have been signed the trust is effective. This is not accurate; not only must the trust document be executed, but then the assets must be transferred into the trust, (you must “fund the trust”). Failure to fund the trust is especially common with do-it-yourself websites and computer programs; people mistakenly believe that just having a trust is sufficient. Before a trustee can administer the trust, he or she needs to have assets to administer. When examining the assets, here are some action items to consider.

• If the decedent had a safe deposit box, take possession of it and its contents.
• Consult with banking institutions in the area to find all accounts of the deceased.
• Check for cash and other valuables that may be hidden around the home.
• Locate and inventory all real estate deeds, mortgages, leases, and tax information.
• Provide immediate management for rental properties.
• Locate all household and personal effects and other personal property in order to inventory and protect them.
• Collect all life insurance proceeds payable to the estate.
• Find and safeguard all business interests, valuables, personal property, and important papers.

Ultimately, do your best to make sure that the trust’s assets are actually in the trust. If you identify assets that were not transferred to the trust, ascertain whether they should have been.

5) Take emotion out of the equation.In many situations you can be asked to be a trustee for clients, parents, brothers, sisters, and other family members or friends. When the emotional ties are close, you cannot play favorites. As a trustee you have a huge responsibility and significant exposure. Your actions will be scrutinized and challenged by those beneficiaries who feel they were treated unfairly. Your best bet to avoid personal liability is to be unbiased when dealing with trust matters. If you are not sure about your actions and whether they reflect any bias, ask your attorney.

6) Obtain adequate liability and fidelity insurance. No one is immune to lawsuits, and that includes you in your role as a trustee. To protect yourself, obtain errors and omissions insurance, which protects against claims by beneficiaries that you failed to fulfill your fiduciary duty in the management and administration of the trust. Without the protection of errors and omissions insurance, your personal assets could be “exposed” if a disgruntled beneficiary sues you. It is better to have insurance to protect you and your assets.

Being a trustee is not always an appreciated job, but it certainly is a job with tremendous responsibility. Just remember to be mindful of your duties and ask for advice when in doubt. Trusts contain valuable assets, and as dysfunctional families do not get better when someone passes away, trustees easily can become embroiled in nasty litigation. You may not be able to avoid it, but at least you’ll be able to protect yourself.

For more information on trusts, wills, probate, and the role of trustees, contact Rob Cohen at (818) 501-5800 or emal him at rcohen@ahslawyers.com.

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Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 2)

This is part 2 of the blog series entitled “Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ” discussing frequently asked questions about living trusts, probate, taxes and more.

Doesn’t joint ownership avoid probate?
Not really. Using joint ownership usually just postpones probate. With most jointly owned assets, when one owner dies, full ownership does transfer to the surviving owner without probate. But if that owner dies without adding a new joint owner, or if both owners die at the same time, the asset must be probated before it can go to the heirs.

Watch out for other problems. When you add a co-owner, you lose control. Your chances of being named in a lawsuit and of losing the asset to a creditor are increased. There could be gift and/or income tax problems. And since a will does not control most jointly owned assets, you could disinherit your family.

With some assets, especially real estate, all owners must sign to sell or refinance. So if a co-owner becomes incapacitated, you could find yourself with a new “co-owner” — the court–even if the incapacitated owner is your spouse.

Why would the court get involved at incapacity?
If you can’t conduct business due to mental or physical incapacity (Alzheimer’s, stroke, heart attack, etc.), only a court appointee can sign for you – even if you have a will. (Remember, a will only goes into effect after you die.)

Once the court gets involved, it usually stays involved until you recover or die. The court, not your family, controls how your assets are used to care for you. This public process can be expensive, embarrassing, time consuming and difficult to end if you recover. And it does not replace probate at death – your family could have to go through the court system twice!

Does a durable power of attorney prevent the court’s involvement at incapacity?
A durable power of attorney lets you name someone to manage your financial affairs if you are unable to do so. However, many financial institutions will not honor one unless it is on their form. And, if accepted, it may work too well — giving someone a “blank check” to do whatever he/she wants with your assets. It can be very effective when used with a living trust, but risky when used alone.
What is a living trust?
A living trust is a legal document that, just like a will, contains your instructions for what you want to happen to your assets when you die. But, unlike a will, a living trust avoids probate at death, can control all of your assets, and prevents the court from controlling your assets if you become incapacitated.
How does a living trust avoid probate and prevent court control of assets at incapacity?
When you set up a living trust, you transfer assets from your name to the name of your trust, which you control — such as from “Bob and Sue Smith, husband and wife” to “Bob and Sue Smith, trustees under trust dated (date of trust).”

Legally you no longer own anything (don’t panic: everything now belongs to your trust), so there is nothing for the courts to control when you die or become incapacitated. The concept is very simple, but this is what keeps you and your family out of the courts.

For additional questions about trust law, speak with our experienced Estate Planning Lawyer in Los Angeles today.

Continue to: Understanding Living Trusts: How You Can Avoid Probate, Save Taxes and More FAQ (Part 3)