AUGUST 29, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 32
Are you a trustee, or named as successor trustee for a family member or friend? We regularly advise people in your circumstance that they should get good legal advice. Once you’ve done that, however, you are not absolved from any liability if things go wrong.
A trustee is generally permitted to delegate some duties to others — especially to professionals. So it makes sense, and might even be required, for a trustee to hire a stockbroker, or an accountant, or a lawyer. But the ability to delegate is coupled with a duty to monitor the professional.
At least that’s the law in Arizona, and probably also the law in any state that has adopted the Uniform Trust Code. It’s also the law in California, as it turns out — even though California has not adopted the Uniform Trust Code. How do we know? Because of Terry Delgado (though we’ve changed his name for this narrative).
Terry was named as successor trustee on his mother’s trust. After her death late in 2011, he took over, and began managing her trust property. That included two pieces of real estate in the San Francisco area, several bank accounts and some personal property items. Her trust directed that it should be distributed equally between Terry and his two sisters.
When they hadn’t gotten any information about the trust after two years, Terry’s sisters wrote to the lawyer who had been handling the trust administration. They asked for an accounting, distribution of some of the trust’s holdings, and information about what would happen to the real estate. They got nothing back in response. They did, though, get a notice from Terry’s lawyer that one of the properties was being listed for sale. They wrote back saying that they thought the property needed work done before it was sold, and demanding that they get information about what had happened and what might be proposed.
A court hearing was set for six weeks later. Three days prior to that hearing, Terry’s lawyer filed a motion to continue the hearing, claiming that he (the lawyer) had been ill and needed to be involved in the preparation of any accounting. The probate judge conducted a hearing anyway, and decided Terry’s power as trustee needed to be suspended. The judge appointed a professional trustee to take charge temporarily, and ordered Terry to file a complete accounting with the court within six weeks from that hearing date.
Instead, Terry’s lawyer filed a motion to reconsider the order suspending Terry’s powers as trustee. The lawyer claimed that, because of his illness, he had been sleep-deprived and unable to complete the accounting. He had also been working on an accounting in connection with the related estate of Terry’s mother’s late husband. Furthermore, Terry himself had been unable to complete the accounting because of his work schedule and his lawyer’s illness.
At the same time, Terry’s lawyer filed an entirely separate pleading on behalf of the real estate agent who had been hired to list the property. That pleading objected to any change in trustee, and noted that the real estate agent’s company might file a claim against the estate if the listing were to be canceled.
On the last day set by the probate judge, Terry’s lawyer filed an accounting on his behalf — on the wrong forms. The accounting revealed that up to that point, Terry’s lawyer had charged the trust something more than $320,000 in fees — $350 per hour for 916.15 hours.
The probate court received the accounting and set a hearing to review it for two months later. During the delay, Terry’s lawyer filed his own declaration. It apologized to the probate judge for the delays, acknowledged that he had filed the wrong kind of accounting, described his health problems and promised to get the proper accounting filed before the new hearing date already set.
At that hearing, the probate court permanently removed Terry as trustee. It appointed the neutral fiduciary who had been acting temporarily, and noted that no acceptable accounting had yet been filed. At a later hearing on Terry’s lawyer’s request for a reconsideration, the probate judge reaffirmed the same orders.
Terry appealed to the California Court of Appeal. That court upheld the removal and the appointment of a new fiduciary. The appellate judges noted that Terry had every right to hire an attorney to represent him as trustee, but that he had an obligation to monitor his attorney and to see to it that his duties were properly discharged.
Terry’s attorney had created a serious conflict of interest by appearing in the same proceeding on behalf of someone who asserted a claim against the trust, ruled the appellate court. The attorney’s assertion that there was no “actual” conflict of interest in the dual representation did not relieve Terry of his duty.
It is perfectly permissible, ruled the appellate court, for a trustee to hire a professional — like an attorney — to handle trust business and to delegate authority to that professional. The trustee, though, is still required to monitor the professional, and to hire a more suitable alternate if the attorney is unable to handle the assignment — whether that is because of illness, unfamiliarity with trust administration procedures, or otherwise. Desbiens v. Delgman, August 10, 2016.