Our legal operations continue. We are here for you. Read more

Who’s in Charge? Does the Trustee have to obtain my permission to take actions with Trust property?

Simply put, no.  A Trustee is considered the legal owner of all Trust assets.  And as the legal owner, the Trustee has the right to manage the Trust assets unilaterally, without direction or input from the beneficiaries.  In fact, that is the purpose of having a Trustee in the first place, to appoint someone who can manage the Trust assets.

That may seem a bit odd since the beneficiaries are the beneficial owners of the Trust property.  In other words, the Trust assets will eventually be distributed to the Trust beneficiaries and then become the sole property of the beneficiaries.  If the beneficiaries effectively “own” the property, then why don’t the beneficiaries call the shots, make the decisions, or at least have the right to veto the actions of the Trustee?

Unique Nature of Trust Ownership

It all comes down the unique nature of Trusts.  When a person creates a Trust they are effectively separating the legal ownership from the beneficial ownership of the assets.  We don’t usually think about these two different aspects of ownership because in every other context, they are one in the same.  A person who owns a house has the legal ownership and can make decisions related to that assets (such as selling it, refinancing, whatever).  That same person also benefits from that house by either living in it or renting it out and collecting the rental income.  If you own an asset, you benefit from that asset.  And if you benefit from an asset, then you must own it.

Trusts change all that.  A Trustee owns the assets in the sense that the Trustee has the sole right, and responsibility, to manage the Trust assets.  That includes selling and buying assets.  Since the Trustee is the legal owner, the Trustee can exercise his or her power unilaterally with no input required from the Trust beneficiaries.

But the Trustee does not benefit from their legal ownership.  Unless a Trustee is also a beneficiary, the Trustee does not receive a benefit from the legal ownership of Trust assets.  Instead, the Trust beneficiaries benefit from the Trust assets.  The Trustee makes the decisions, and the beneficiaries reap the rewards.

Of course, sometimes the Trustee makes the decisions and the beneficiaries reap the burden of those decisions.  For example, a Trustee who makes a bad decision can cause monetary damage to the Trust assets.  That hurts the beneficiaries because their beneficial interests in the Trust can be reduced, sometimes substantially reduced, by the bad acts of a Trustee.

California Trustee Responsibilities and Duties

That brings us to Trustee duties and responsibilities.  Even though the Trustee calls the shots, that does not mean the Trustee can do whatever he or she likes.  In fact, the Trustee is required by California Trust law to (1) follow the terms of the Trust, and (2) follow the requirements of the California Probate Code for Trustee duties.  That means everything a Trustee does must be done to benefit the Trust beneficiaries, not harm them.

The bottom line is that even though the beneficiaries do not participate directly in the management decisions of the Trust, the Trustee does have to account to the beneficiaries at the end of the Trust administration.  In other words, the beneficiaries will get the final say.  And if the Trustee did cause harm, rather than rewards, to the beneficiaries, then the Trustee will be surcharged by the Court to make the beneficiaries whole again.