Q. My sister just passed away and had previously appointed me as trustee of her trust. She was estranged from one of her sons and left him nothing on purpose. However, I anticipate that he will demand a copy of the trust and information about her estate. Am I my legally obliged to share any of that information with him?
A. Here are the short answers: Yes, on a copy of the trust; No, on information about the estate. Here’s the explanation:
Copy of the Trust: California law provides that, upon the demise of a trust-maker (aka, a “Settlor”), formal notice must go out to all of the Settlor’s beneficiaries AND heirs at law. Beneficiaries are persons or organizations named in the trust to receive a bequest; they may, or may not, also be family members. Heirs are close family members whose status is measured by bloodlines and who may, or may not, also be named as beneficiaries. This formal notice advises both named beneficiaries and unnamed heirs that they are entitled to a copy of the trust and that, if they wish to challenge its legal validity, they must do so within a prescribed period of time.
The law’s rationale appears to be the following: heirs, who may have been left out entirely, as in your sister’s case, or who may feel that they were “short-changed” on their anticipated inheritance, should have the right to challenge the trust by, for example, proving to a judge that your sister was of unsound mind when she signed the document. To challenge the trust, the law understandably affords them an opportunity to obtain a copy of the trust instrument upon formal request.
Information About the Trust Estate: By comparison, however, only a beneficiary is entitled to information about the trust estate, including an accounting of the trust assets, income and expenditures. In this sense, beneficiaries would include both primary beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries, the latter being persons who would take in the event that the primary beneficiaries predeceased them or disclaimed their bequests.
Other Options: Sometimes clients with estranged family members balk at having to formally notify them of the commencement of formal trust administration following a settlor’s death. These families are concerned that the estranged heirs may make trouble, especially when offered the right to a copy of the decedent’s trust.
Unfortunately, if the decedent’s assets are held in a trust, there is really no way around the formal notice requirement required by California law. However, if we are consulted in advance, say, at the time the Settlor is designing his or her estate plan, there are sometimes alternative arrangements that can avoid the necessity of formal notice. One option: Instead of placing assets in a Living Trust, many kinds of assets can be held in Beneficiary Form, so that the particular asset goes automatically to the designated beneficiaries upon the owner’s death and without probate or formal trust administration. Examples: Pay on Death (“POD”) Bank Accounts, Transfer on Death (“TOD”) Brokerage Accounts, Insurance and Annuity Policies and even Transfer on Death Home Deeds.
In connection with trust administration, especially where — as here — you expect difficulty from a disgruntled heir, it is wise to engage the services of an attorney familiar with trust administration to guide you.