Things to Consider When You’re Named as Successor Trustee

NOVEMBER 2, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 40

When a family member dies, you will need to address a number of items. One that might come up: handling the revocable living trust they created.

If you are named as successor trustee you will have a number of obligations you need to discharge. You might need help from a lawyer and/or an accountant; you should not hesitate to consult one or both to figure out how much help you do need. Many of the successor trustees who consult us can do just fine without continuing legal help, but the process is not always easy or obvious.

We can provide you with an introduction to the considerations involved in handling a trust after the death of the trust’s settlor. Before we start, though, these caveats/warnings are appropriate: we’re only writing about Arizona law, and your situation might be very different than the other facts we assume here. Any questions in your mind about what needs to be done? Ask a lawyer.

With that in mind, here are some of the issues to consider shortly after the death of someone who named you as successor trustee:

What law applies? It’s not always obvious. If your mother signed her trust in Arizona and lived and died in Arizona, and you live in Arizona as well, her trust will almost certainly be governed by Arizona law. But what if she lived in another state and you live in Arizona? Or if the reverse is true? Or the trust says that another state’s law will apply?

The general rule: the law of the state where the trustee lives usually applies. That’s you, not your now-deceased mother. If you are the trustee, start by talking with a lawyer in your own community, and ask her whether she is the right person to advise you (of, if not, if she can refer you to someone in the right state).

Notice to beneficiaries. The law of many states — including Arizona — requires specific written notice to the beneficiaries of a trust after you take over as trustee of an irrevocable trust. Did you manage the trust for a time before your father’s death? Ask your lawyer about the applicable state law. This is an area where state laws differ.

Arizona says that notice is due within sixty days of a trust becoming irrevocable (as, for instance, upon the death of the settlor):

Within sixty days after the date the trustee acquires knowledge of the creation of an irrevocable trust or the date the trustee acquires knowledge that a formerly revocable trust has become irrevocable, whether by the death of the settlor or otherwise, shall notify the qualified beneficiaries of the trust’s existence, of the identity of the settlor or settlors, of the trustee’s name, address and telephone number, of the right to request a copy of the relevant portions of the trust instrument and of the right to a trustee’s report as provided in subsection C.

That’s Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-10813(B)(3). Note that it refers to a list of items the notice must include. You can read that description at the same link, but it basically requires information about the settlor, the trustee, the trust and its assets.

Identifying the beneficiaries. Who is a “beneficiary.” Suppose your father’s trust says that if you, all your children, and all your cousins die in a common accident, everything goes to a charitable organization. Does that mean that all notices have to be sent to that charity, too? Not necessarily.

Arizona defines people and organizations who need notice (they are called “qualified beneficiaries”) to include everyone who is entitled to (or even can receive) income or principal right now, plus anyone who could receive trust money if one thing happened (like the death of a beneficiary). That’s a bit of a simplification, but it should help figure out who is entitled to notice. The details are in Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-10103(14). It’s a little hard to read and interpret — talk to your lawyer about it if you have any difficulty figuring out who is a “qualified beneficiary.”

Review the trust. Not just the parts identifying the beneficiaries, or the list of successor trustees. Read the entire trust. It might tell you to do more than the law requires. In some cases, it might tell you that you can do less than the minimum spelled out in the law — though sometimes those provisions are ineffective. Talk to your lawyer if you have any questions about minimum or maximum requirements.

Certificate of trust. When your mother signed her trust, she probably created a short (two- or three-page) document that listed the trust’s name, her status as trustee and the name of her successor trustee (among other things). You will probably want to prepare a similar document as successor trustee, and it might need to be filed with the County Recorder’s office in any county where the trust owns real estate. Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-11013 tells you what you might include in that certification, but it doesn’t provide a form. Having a hard time finding a good form? That’s because every case is so different — depending on how many and who the beneficiaries are, what kinds of assets the trust holds, the relationship of the successor trustee, and other things. Ask your lawyer for help.

Taxes. You knew that taxes would be an issue, right? Someone (and it’s probably you) will need to sign and file a final federal income tax return for the part-year they lived. The trust will be a separate taxpaying entity, and will need to secure a taxpayer ID number (an EIN) and file at least one federal income tax return. There will need to be state income tax returns for the state where your family member lived, and for the trust in one or more states. This is a good item to discuss with your accountant.

There’s more. This list is far from complete. It’s an attempt to give you some idea of what you’re facing, and to help you figure out whether you need to consult a lawyer. Not sure? That’s the best evidence that you need to get good legal counsel.

©2017 Fleming & Curti, PLC