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What are the duties and responsibilities of a Trustee?

A trustee — whether an individual or institution — holds legal title to the trust property and is given broad powers over maintenance and investment. To ensure that these duties are properly carried out, the law requires that the trustee act in a certain manner. In general, a trustee must:

  • Act in accord with the express terms of the trust instrument;
  • Act impartially, administering the trust for the benefit of all trust beneficiaries;
  • Administer the trust property with reasonable care and skill, considering both its safety and the amount of income it produces;
  • Maintain complete accounts and records; and
  • Perform taxpayer duties, such as filing tax returns for the trust and paying required taxes.

The trustee must administer the trust property only for the designated beneficiaries and may not use trust principal or income for his or her own benefit. In other words, a trustee is usually prohibited from borrowing or buying from the trust, from selling his or her own property to it, and from using the trust assets as collateral for a personal debt.

In selecting a trustee you should consider the potential trustee's competence and experience in managing business or financial matters and the potential trustee's availability and willingness to serve.

Individuals and certain corporations (or a combination of both) may serve as trustee. Each selection offers distinct advantages and drawbacks that should be considered. For example, an institution, such as a bank, usually offers specially trained managers to provide administrative, counseling and tax services. Other typical advantages include the institution's continuity and reliability of service, and its ready availability. Most banks charge a fee for trust services, and some may not want to manage small trusts, so you may want to compare options.

As an alternative, an individual, such as a relative, family friend or business associate, may serve as trustee. An individual, unlike an institution, may be willing to serve for little or no fee. Furthermore, this person could add a more personal touch for special understanding to the needs of the beneficiaries. However, you will want to be certain that any nominated individual has the skill and experience necessary to properly manage the trust property.