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Should you be a trustee?

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certificate of trust

So, you’ve been named the successor trustee of a loved one’s trust. This is an honor. The person who chose you probably really trusted you and thought that you are responsible enough to handle their trust assets. But, just because you’ve been named as successor trustee, doesn’t mean you have to accept. Before you accept and become the trustee, there are a few things you should consider.

The amount of time required

Administering a trust takes a lot of time and energy. Depending on the type of trust and how the trustor set it up, trust administration can take anywhere from six months to decades.

If the trust was set up to provide for a trustor during their lifetime and then disburse upon their death, trust administration might be relatively quick. A trustee could administer trust assets to beneficiaries outright in as little as 6 months. This is assuming that everything runs smoothly and as quickly as possible. If the trust is ongoing, like if there are assets held in trust for a surviving spouse or a child, you could end up being trustee for much, much longer.

Seriously consider how much time you have to give to the trust and how that might change in the next couple of years. Perhaps you have free time right now, but are planning on having a child next year. Or, maybe you’re in school, but think you will have less time once you graduate. Or, if your time is just already in tight supply, it may be best to politely decline to be trustee.

Your relationship with the beneficiaries

Being a trustee requires significant communication between the trustee and the trust’s beneficiaries. If you and the beneficiaries dislike each other or argue constantly, it may not be a good fit.

Even trustees and beneficiaries that start off with good relationships can end up tense if the beneficiary doesn’t like the way the trustee is handling the trust. If beneficiaries are unhappy, they can add to the stress of being a trustee. Beneficiaries can demand frequent accountings, ask the court to remove you as trustee, or even sue you if they feel that you have violated their legal duties to them.

Your relationship with any co-trustees

If the trust document names you and another person as co-trustees, you should take this into account when determining if you want to serve as trustee. Most co-trustees are required to act together unanimously. Some co-trustees can act with independently of one another. The trust document should specify if co-trustees have authority to act independently or not. Regardless, co-trustees need to have open and frequent communication, and the ability to come together to make decisions.

If the co-trustees are required to act together, it’s kind of like working on a group project in school. All decisions are supposed to be made together. All of the co-trustees have to put their name on the decisions. And, for one reason or another, one person usually ends up doing most of the work.

In an ideal world, the two co-trustees would split up the information gathering tasks. For example, one trustee may talk to the financial advisor, and the other talks to a real estate agent about selling the house. Then the trustees come together to make decisions together. If you and the other co-trustee are on bad terms or don’t tend to see eye-to-eye on things, it may be best to decline.

You could also be legally liable for actions the other co-trustee takes. If the co-trustee fails to file a tax return or send an accounting, you could also be in trouble.

All of this requires you and the co-trustee to spend time together. It also requires you to agree on decisions. If you and the co-trustee don’t get along, it will be a major obstacle.

Your organization skills

Your loved one picked you because they saw you as a responsible and organized person. But, you need to be honest with yourself- are you organized?

If the answer is yes- great! Skip to the next consideration.

But if you’re not sure, consider the following: Being a trustee requires you manage trust assets and keep on top of deadlines. It requires keeping track of every dollar going in and out of the trust. This includes information about where and how the funds were spent.

If your disorganized, there could be legal consequences. For example, if you leave mutual funds with awful performance for years without checking up on it, the beneficiaries could sue you for the losses they suffered and mismanagement of trust assets. If you miss an accounting deadline, the beneficiaries could sue you for failing to send accountings to them as required by the trust document.

This is not meant to scare you. Generally, mistakes are ok as long as you are acting reasonably and in good faith. But, if you’re not an organized person, it may be best to just politely decline.

Was the trustor organized?

One of your first jobs as a trustee will be to find and collect trust assets. This can be a piece of cake if the trustor left detailed and organized records. If not, this can be incredibly difficult. Even if the trustor was organized, you will still likely have to search through account statements, mail, and old tax returns to find important information. If they were not organized, it might be a struggle to even find these documents. If the trustor was disorganized, you should consider the additional time that will be required administering the trust.

Have you made your decision? If you have made it through this list and still feel like you are a good fit to be trustee, that’s great. You may want to do a little more research and talk to an attorney before you fully accept the role.

If you don’t think you should be the new trustee, you should formally decline, in writing and notify the beneficiaries of the trust. You should also notify the next successor trustee in line. Then, it will be up to them if they want to be a trustee or not. You can even send them this newsletter if you think it would be helpful. If no one is next in line to be successor trustee, or the next, named one doesn’t want the job, you should contact an attorney to help fill the role.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.