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The successor trustee dilemma: Corporate trustee, family member or both?

by Legacy Plan
April 25, 2024

The successor trustee is a linchpin in the world of estate planning, assuming the mantle of trust management during pivotal events like the incapacity or death of the original trustee. This role is not just administrative but also fiduciary, demanding unwavering responsibility, integrity and expertise. The successor trustee's primary duties involve meticulous management of trust assets, equitable and timely distributions to beneficiaries, and ensuring strict adherence to the trust's stipulations both in spirit and legality.

What is the role of a successor trustee?

The role of a successor trustee in estate planning is multifaceted and crucial for the effective management and execution of a trust. The responsibilities vested in a successor trustee are both comprehensive and intricate, extending beyond mere asset management to encompass a broader stewardship role.

The primary duty of a successor trustee is the meticulous management of trust assets. This responsibility includes not only the preservation and protection of these assets but also their strategic growth and investment. The trustee must exercise prudence and diligence in investment decisions, ensuring that the trust’s assets are not only safeguarded against loss but also potentially grow over time in alignment with the trust’s objectives. This may involve balancing a diverse portfolio, making informed decisions about buying or selling assets, and regularly assessing the performance of investments.

A critical aspect of a successor trustee's role is making distributions to beneficiaries in accordance with the terms laid out in the trust document. This involves a deep understanding of the trust's stipulations, including any specific conditions or timelines for distributions. The trustee must be vigilant in ensuring that distributions are made fairly, timely and in a manner that aligns with the grantor’s intentions. This can often involve complex decision-making, particularly in scenarios where the terms of the trust are open to interpretation or where beneficiaries have competing interests or needs.

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Successor trustees are also responsible for maintaining comprehensive and accurate records of all trust activities. This includes documenting financial transactions, investment decisions, distributions made to beneficiaries and any other actions taken in the management of the trust. Accurate record-keeping is essential not only for transparency and accountability but also for legal and tax purposes. It provides a clear trail of the trustee’s actions and decisions, which is crucial in the event of disputes or audits.

Fulfilling legal obligations is another critical aspect of a successor trustee’s role. This encompasses adhering to trust law and regulations, ensuring tax compliance, and meeting any other legal requirements pertinent to the trust. The trustee must be knowledgeable about the legal framework governing trusts in their jurisdiction and ensure that all actions taken are in compliance with these laws. This includes the timely filing of tax returns for the trust, paying any taxes owed and responding to any legal challenges or inquiries regarding the trust.

Ultimately, the overriding responsibility of a successor trustee is to ensure that the grantor's wishes, as expressed in the trust document, are respected and carried out. This requires a commitment to understanding the grantor's intentions and applying them faithfully in the administration of the trust. Additionally, the trustee has a duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries, managing the trust assets and making distributions in a way that benefits them according to the trust's terms.

What is the definition and role of a corporate trustee?

The concept of a corporate trustee encompasses a specialized role within the sphere of estate planning and trust management. When we refer to a corporate trustee, we are typically talking about a bank, trust company or a financial institution that has been legally authorized and regulated to act as a trustee. These entities play a significant role in the management and administration of trusts, offering a range of services backed by their professional expertise and regulatory compliance.

A corporate trustee is a legally recognized entity, rather than an individual, that takes on the fiduciary responsibility of managing a trust. This entity is often a bank, trust company or other financial institution that specializes in handling trusts and estates. The defining characteristic of a corporate trustee is its institutional nature, which means it operates under strict regulatory oversight and adheres to established standards of practice in trust management. This institutional framework provides a level of professionalism and reliability that is foundational to its role.

One of the key aspects of a corporate trustee is that they are licensed and regulated by governmental and financial authorities. This oversight ensures that corporate trustees adhere to legal standards and ethical practices in their management of trust assets. The regulatory framework within which they operate is designed to protect the interests of the beneficiaries and ensure that the trust is administered in accordance with the law and the trust's terms.

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Corporate trustees bring a significant level of professional expertise to the table, which is a major factor in their appeal as a choice for trust administration. They have experience in managing diverse types of assets, understanding complex legal and tax implications and navigating the intricacies of trust law. Their services typically include investment management, ensuring the trust’s assets are invested wisely and in a manner that aligns with the trust’s objectives and risk parameters.

An important advantage of a corporate trustee is the element of continuity and stability it offers. Unlike individual trustees who may pass away or become incapacitated, a corporate trustee, as an institution, provides a long-term solution for trust management. This longevity ensures that the trust can be managed consistently over its entire duration, which can be particularly important for trusts that are designed to last for multiple generations.

Another significant aspect of a corporate trustee is its impartiality. Being an independent entity, a corporate trustee can make unbiased decisions that are in the best interests of the beneficiaries, free from personal relationships or emotions that might influence an individual trustee. This level of objectivity is crucial in managing the trust fairly and equitably, especially in situations where there may be conflicting interests among beneficiaries.

What are the advantages of having a corporate trustee?

When considering a corporate trustee, such as a bank or financial institution, for trust management, there are several aspects to weigh. Corporate trustees are renowned for their professional expertise, particularly in managing trusts, investments and ensuring legal compliance, which guarantees the efficient and effective administration of the trust. Their objectivity and impartiality are also significant advantages, as they administer the trust without bias, crucial for avoiding conflicts that might arise within families. Furthermore, corporate trustees provide continuity and permanence, offering a stable management presence that is not affected by the vulnerabilities of individual trustees like death or incapacitation. Additionally, their proficiency in navigating complex legal and tax landscapes ensures that trusts remain compliant with all relevant regulations.

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However, choosing a corporate trustee also comes with certain drawbacks. Primarily, they are known to charge higher fees compared to individual trustees, which can be a significant consideration for some trusts. Additionally, corporate trustees might lack the personal touch and detailed understanding of family dynamics that an individual trustee, particularly a family member or a close acquaintance, might bring to the table. This can result in a management style that may not be as tailored to the specific nuances of the family. Finally, the level of personalized interaction with beneficiaries can be less intimate under a corporate trustee, potentially impacting the depth of engagement and understanding between the trustee and beneficiaries, an aspect often more pronounced with an individual trustee.

What are the disadvantages of a corporate trustee?

When it comes to the disadvantages of opting for a corporate trustee, there are a few key factors to consider. One of the most notable downsides is the higher costs involved. Corporate trustees typically charge more for their services compared to individual trustees, which can be a significant factor for some trusts, particularly if cost management is a priority. Another area where corporate trustees may fall short is in providing a personal touch.

Unlike an individual trustee, particularly one who is a family member or a close acquaintance, a corporate trustee might not offer the same level of personal care and understanding. This lack of personalization could lead to a management approach that isn't as finely tuned to the specific dynamics and needs of a family. Additionally, the level of engagement with beneficiaries under a corporate trustee might not be as deep or personalized as it often is with an individual trustee. This could potentially impact the understanding and relationship between the trustee and the beneficiaries, an aspect that is usually more pronounced and valued in arrangements involving individual trustees.

What are the characteristics of having a family member as trustee?

Opting for a family member or a loved one to serve as a trustee typically involves selecting someone deeply familiar with the family's dynamics, capable of making decisions with a personal touch that reflects this intimate understanding. There are several advantages to this approach. First, a family member is likely to have a better grasp of the family's needs and dynamics, allowing for more tailored decision-making. Additionally, their decisions are often imbued with empathy and understanding, given their personal connection to the family. Another benefit is the potential for lower costs, as family members may not charge for their trustee services, or if they do, their fees are generally more affordable compared to corporate trustees.

However, there are also notable drawbacks to appointing a family member as a trustee. One significant concern is the lack of professional knowledge in financial and legal aspects of trust management, which is crucial for effective administration. Furthermore, family dynamics can sometimes lead to biased decisions or conflicts, potentially complicating the management of the trust. There are also issues of continuity to consider, as illness, death or an unwillingness to serve can disrupt the management of the trust, posing challenges to its stability and longevity.

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When comparing a corporate trustee with a family member, it becomes apparent that each option has its distinct set of strengths and weaknesses. A corporate trustee brings professional expertise and objectivity but often at a higher cost and with less personalization. In contrast, a family member offers a more personalized approach, imbued with a deeper understanding of family intricacies, yet may lack the professional expertise and objectivity that a corporate trustee possesses.

Can you use both a corporate and family trustee?

Hybrid approaches to trust management that blend the strengths of both corporate and family trustees are gaining traction. These co-trustee arrangements involve a family member teaming up with a corporate trustee to combine the professional expertise and impartiality of a corporate entity with the intimate, personal insights of a family member.

The core advantage of this hybrid model lies in its ability to balance the professional and personal aspects of trust management. The corporate trustee brings a wealth of professional experience, invaluable for addressing complex financial and legal aspects of the trust. Their expertise in handling diverse investment portfolios and navigating the intricacies of tax laws, along with their impartial approach to decision-making, are critical assets to the trust's administration.

On the other hand, a family member trustee provides a deep understanding of the family's dynamics, history and the grantor's intentions. This personal connection allows for empathetic and nuanced decision-making, especially in matters that closely affect family members. Their insight into the family's values and objectives can steer the trust in a direction that resonates with the grantor's original vision.

However, managing a trust under a hybrid arrangement is not without its challenges. Effective coordination and clear communication between the corporate and family trustees are paramount. Each party brings distinct perspectives and skills, and without a well-established communication framework, misunderstandings and conflicts can arise. Therefore, setting clear guidelines on decision-making processes, dividing responsibilities and sharing information is crucial for the smooth operation of the trust.

The decision-making process itself becomes more complex in a hybrid setup. Striking a balance between the professional judgment of the corporate trustee and the personal insights of the family trustee demands careful consideration. Ensuring that all decisions align with the best interests of the beneficiaries and comply with the trust's terms is a delicate task. Additionally, it is vital to have a clear mechanism for resolving any conflicts that might emerge.

Moreover, hybrid arrangements involve significant legal and financial considerations. Both trustees need to be cognizant of their shared responsibilities and liabilities under the trust. It's essential for both parties to be fully informed and in agreement on the terms of their co-trusteeship, including their respective authorities, to prevent legal issues.


The role of a successor trustee stands out as crucial, especially during pivotal moments such as the incapacitation or passing of the original trustee. This role is multifaceted, extending beyond mere administration to encompass a fiduciary duty that demands unwavering responsibility, integrity and expertise. The tasks of the successor trustee are comprehensive, involving the detailed management of trust assets, equitable and timely distributions to beneficiaries, and ensuring strict adherence to both the letter and spirit of the trust’s stipulations.

At the heart of their role, successor trustees are tasked with the careful management of trust assets. This responsibility encompasses not only the safeguarding and protection of these assets but also their strategic investment and growth, aligning with the trust's objectives. This might include the balanced handling of a diverse portfolio and making informed investment decisions, all while regularly evaluating the performance of these investments. Another key aspect is the responsibility to make distributions to beneficiaries as outlined in the trust document, which often requires a deep understanding of the trust's stipulations and a vigilant approach to ensure fairness and alignment with the grantor's intentions.

Maintaining comprehensive and accurate records of all trust activities is another vital component of a successor trustee's role, essential for transparency, accountability and legal and tax purposes.

A corporate trustee, typically a bank, trust company or financial institution, brings professional expertise and regulatory compliance to trust management. Their role is defined by their institutional nature, operating under strict regulatory oversight and adhering to established standards. This professional acumen is particularly beneficial for managing complex financial and legal aspects of trusts.

However, choosing a corporate trustee also has its disadvantages, such as higher fees compared to individual trustees and a potential lack of personal touch and detailed understanding of family dynamics. The level of personalized interaction with beneficiaries may also be less intimate than that typically achieved with an individual trustee.

On the other hand, choosing a family member as a trustee often means appointing someone with an intimate knowledge of the family and its dynamics, which can lead to more empathetic and nuanced decision-making. While this approach may offer lower costs and a more personalized approach, it can also bring challenges like a lack of professional expertise in financial and legal matters, potential bias or conflicts due to family dynamics, and issues of continuity.

In recent times, hybrid approaches that combine the strengths of both corporate and family trustees have become popular. These co-trustee arrangements aim to balance the professional expertise of a corporate entity with the personal insights of a family member. Despite their benefits, these arrangements require careful coordination and communication between the corporate and family trustees, as well as a solid framework for decision-making and conflict resolution.

In short, selecting a successor trustee is a pivotal decision in estate planning, requiring careful consideration of the trust's specific needs and the family's dynamics. Whether opting for the professional objectivity of a corporate trustee or the intimate knowledge of a family member, it's crucial to weigh the pros and cons of each. An informed decision is essential for effective trust management and fulfilling the grantor's wishes.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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