October 2, 2013

Fiduciary Duties of a Trustee

In need of some tender loving care........

When a person becomes trustee, one of their duties is to safeguard and make productive trust property under the circumstances at hand. Prob C §§16006-16007. A trustee cannot generally stand by idly and watch trust property rot, decay or deteriorate. Yes, the law unsurprisingly does not look too kindly on the lethargic. A common scenario where this arises is when a son or daughter inherits the family home from their parents. 

Many baby-boomers are resistant to re-locating to a retirement home. The comforts of living in the same residence they have called home for decades compels them to stay typically. This results in a home that can be in need of maintenance and repair given that many baby-boomers are not equipped to handle some the rigors of home ownership, e.g. gardening, household repairs, etc. This is not an indictment of baby-boomers but rather an honest assessment given that they naturally have physical limitations. Ultimately, the children will inherit a home that is habitable but may need renovation and/or improvement.

I was reading the probate file of a case in Alameda County recently. The decedent owned a home in Oakland, CA but had no close relatives living near by. When the decedent passed away, there was nobody available to immediately occupy the home. Sadly, vandals, squatters and drug-users trickled into the home as it was unoccupied. 

Assuming that the decedent had created an income-producting trust for their grandkids, the trustee would have been entrusted with safeguarding the home. Prob C §16006 This would entail ejecting or removing any occupants that would qualify as trespassers, i.e. squatters and drug-users Furthermore, the trustee would need to ensure that proper safety precautions were in place. Thus, they would probably need to check to see that all outdoor lights worked, the door locks were properly functioning, etc. Furthermore, the trustee would also be entrusted with making the property productive. Prob C §§16007. Thus it would be prudent for the trustee to inspect the property for maintenance issues, e.g. inspection of the roof, plumbing, heating, water and electrical. Since a productive home only results from a functional home.    

Failure to fulfill these fiduciary duties, i.e. safeguard trust property and make it productive under the circumstances, can result in severe consequences for the trustee. First, the trustee can be removed from the office of trustee. Prob C § 16420(a)(5). Second, a court can compel the trustee to redress a breach of trust by payment of money or otherwise. Prob C § 16420(a)(3). Third, a court can compel the trustee to act or not act in a certain way, i.e. an injunction. Prob C § 16420(a)(1)-(2).