It is shocking to me how many Trustees violate their fiduciary duties.  Under California Probate Code Section 16000 et seq. there are voluminous sections on all the duties, responsibilities, and liabilities Trustees must comply with to property administrate a Trust.  There are rules on just about every action a Trustee must take, and on actions the Trustee must NOT take, from proper investing (under the Uniform Prudent Investor Act ), to allocation of items between income and principal, to every other action or inaction required of a Trustee.  Yet, so often these many duties and responsibilities are simply ignored, or worse, not known by the individual trustees. 

And when a Trustee violates his duty, and if that violation is challenged in Court, it is the Trustee’s burden to prove that he met the standards required of him under the California Probate Code.  This is why being a Trustee is a thankless job.

But why do so many Trustees get it wrong?  The biggest problem is lack of knowledge. Many individuals acting as Trustees have no idea that they have a boat-load of requirements to follow under the Probate Code, and likely under the Trust document.  They have never been educated, advised, or inquired about their duties at all.  It seems shocking just how many people willingly assume the many duties as Trustee, but have no idea what those duties are. 

A common misconception is that the person acting as Trustee is in control and can do whatever he likes, even continuing to own and invest the way the Trust creator (called a Settlor) did prior to his death.  Not so.  A Trustee cannot do whatever he likes and he cannot continue to invest or even hold assets that the Settlor acquired during life.  This is because the duties of investing for a Trustee are vastly different from those allowed by individual Settlors who created the Trust in the first place.

As a Settlor, the person is entitled to invest however they like (this assumes we are discussing a typical revocable living trust used in estate planning).  The only duties a Settlor has is to herself.  She does not hold assets for anyone other than herself and the Probate Code says she only is responsible to herself.  But once the Trustee passes and a successor Trustee takes over, the ground rules change substantially. 

For example, an individual Settlor has no duty to diversify assets.  She can hold 100% of the Trust assets in a single asset class (such as real estate), or even in a single stock (i.e. Enron) if she likes.  But when a successor Trustee takes over, a duty to diversify the Trust assets comes into effect.  That means the new Trustee must take immediate action to sell a portion of the Trust assets and diversify those investments as required by the Probate Code—there is no leeway here.  Assets MUST be diversified by Trustees!

If I had to guess how many private, individual Trustees are in breach of trust (this does not include professional fiduciaries or corporate fiduciaries), I would say from 80% to 90% of them.  Sounds extreme?  Maybe, but my experience with individual Trustees would suggest that 100% of them are in breach of trust as to at least some aspect of their duties. 

So when you are asked to act as Trustee of a California Trust, the first thing you should do is find out what duties and responsibilities you have.  You’ll be glad you did because it will be up to you alone to prove you complied with those duties.  And it’s much easier to comply with duties you know about than duties you don’t.