Articles and Columns

Acting as a Successor Trustee

Carissa Giebel 5:55 p.m. CST November 24, 2014

When a current trustee is unable to serve, the vacancy is filled by a successor trustee. If both husband and wife are trustees, and one spouse is unable to act, often times the healthy spouse becomes sole trustee, or co-trustee with another person.

A successor trustee will need to show a certificate or affidavit of trust in order to act, as this document shows they have the legal authority to act on behalf of the trust.

When assets are held in trust, upon a person’s death or incapacity, the assets are not frozen, but instead the successor trustee can access and manage the assets without court intervention. Any assets that are not held in trust are frozen until someone with the legal authority to manage them steps forward, which may require court intervention.

The successor trustee should keep an accounting of bills paid and income received. An application may be needed for a taxpayer identification number, which may be required to open bank accounts, file fiduciary income tax returns, or complete other management duties as the successor trustee.

After the trustmaker’s death, the trustee is legally responsible to manage and distribute the assets according to the trust provisions. The trustee should order five to 10 death certificates and locate all of the trustmaker’s paperwork, including any funeral instructions. If there is a safe or safe deposit box, access the documents there.

If there are any vacant houses, consider changing the locks and inform the insurance company of the vacancy. An appraisal may be necessary for any real estate.

Benefits should be collected, such as any retirement or disability income, employer benefits, veteran’s benefits, medical benefits payable, or any other benefits payable to the deceased.

Create an inventory of all assets and household goods. It may be a good idea to take photographs of the personal property in case anything goes missing.

After an inventory is completed, consolidate all of the trust liquid assets into a trust checking. Any assets that name the trust as beneficiary can also be deposited into this account. A death certificate will be required for those assets to be paid out to the trust.

Any known creditors should be paid from the trust assets, before any distributions are made to beneficiaries. Various tax returns may need to be filed.

When assets are distributed to the beneficiaries, the beneficiaries should sign a receipt and release form, acknowledging they have received their inheritance and that they release the trustee from further responsibility or liability.

Settling a trust is much easier and more efficient than a probate. It’s much faster and accounts are not frozen, but instead accessible right away to the successor trustee.

However, in order to take advantage of potential tax benefits, minimize trustee liability, and maintain proper records, careful attention needs to be made by the trustee to complete the many required duties. Professional help is strongly recommended and can expedite the settlement process and insure no steps are missed.

Carissa Giebel is an estate planning attorney and partner at Legacy Law Group, LLC. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or (920) 560-4651.

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