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Christopher Jones: Estate Disputes — Rise, Fall of Economy Shows Rise, Fall in Litigation

Whether a trustee or beneficiary, become educated to ensure everything is handled appropriately

Being a trustee or beneficiary today is a daunting task. Trustees are being required to be more technical, thorough and rigid in their jobs, and beneficiaries are becoming more educated in knowing and enforcing their rights.

Christopher Jones
Christopher Jones

As a beneficiary of a trust, you have the right to request information from the trustee of a trust. You have the right to stay informed, be treated fairly and consistently as all the other beneficiaries, and you have the right to ensure that the trust funds are being spent and distributed accurately and appropriately.

Receiving an inheritance may be a once in a lifetime event. Therefore, it is important to make sure that the inheritance you are entitled to is being handled appropriately. It is important to make sure that your funds aren’t being misappropriated, invested in an unwise manner or mishandled. It’s also important to make sure that the trust is being interpreted correctly to ensure that you’re receiving the appropriate disbursement under the terms of the trust.

Trustees don’t have to serve in office in a legal vacuum. They are subject to a large number of laws regulating their conduct. Trustees have many duties and obligations to the beneficiaries of the trust, and they have legal requirements that they must meet. Their legal requirements can involve inventories of trust assets, accounting to beneficiaries and reports of information, just to name a few.

Because many trustees have never performed this job before, and even if they have, they can’t be experts at every aspect of such an all-encompassing job, they have the right to hire a team of people to ensure they’re performing their duties and obligations appropriately. Depending on the size of the estate and the complexity of the assets therein, they can hire accountants, investment consultants, attorneys, real estate agents and the like to ensure that the assets of the trust are being handled, invested and accounted for appropriately.

With the shifting views of our economy, we’re seeing a direct correlation in the administration of trusts. Where trustees and beneficiaries were once willing to turn the other cheek, or look the other way when they weren’t exactly happy with the administration of the handling and administration of the trust, they are no longer willing to do so. The amount of litigation in this regard and vehemence with which this litigation is being pursued is changing.

In an effort to ensure that this doesn’t happen to your family, it’s important to take steps now to become educated. If you know that you’re a trustee of a trust, get educated about your duties and responsibilities. See financial advisors and lawyers so that you know what your duties and responsibilities are in advance.

If you are a named trustee and have any involvement in the handling of the financial affairs of the settlor of the trust (that is the person who set up the trust), see your attorney for advice now. While you may not have any legal obligations other than to the settlor, issues may later arise that would lend themselves to good, sound advice. A few small steps can certainly save you many headaches in the future.

Potential beneficiaries can also become educated in advance. If you believe that advantage is being taken of someone you love, that he or she is changing an estate plan due to another’s undue influence or might be no longer able to make changes to estate planning documents and you are concerned whether those documents reflect your loved one’s wishes, see an attorney for information about how you can ensure that your loved one is protected to the best of your ability.

Being informed and pro-active is the key to enforcing your rights. Some think that this simply leads to litigation, but the opposite is most often the case. Educated participants in trusts are often less likely to litigate. They know the issues and their rights and obligations. As a result, they are less likely to litigate over items that can be worked out by simply communicating and following the rules set out in the law.

Don’t be afraid to become educated by seeking advice from professionals and advisors. The best advice they can give you is that everything is being handled appropriately.

— Christopher Jones is a Santa Barbara-based estate plan and trust administration lawyer. He can be reached at 805.963.2014. Click here for more information.

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