A trust is a legal entity into which you transfer ownership of your assets to be used by your future heirs. It is an estate planning option that often works in conjunction with a last will and testament. All trusts are managed by a trustee, who can be a family member, attorney, or even a financial institution, which is called a corporate trustee.
All trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the trust and should only withdraw funds for the trust’s use in accordance with the terms of the trust agreement. Sometimes the person who created the trust (also known as the grantor, settlor, or trustor) also names themself as the trustee. This is typical for revocable living trusts, which are created during the grantor’s lifetime and can be changed. In this case, the grantor-trustee may have more flexibility when it comes to withdrawing the trust funds.
A trustee is the person or entity in charge of managing the trust
Grantors who act as their own trustees during their lifetime may have more flexibility when it comes to withdrawing trust funds
Trustees of irrevocable trusts should only withdraw money for the trust’s use
Trust beneficiaries can petition to remove a trustee who does not act in the best interest of the trust, such as by stealing or misusing funds
Some people open irrevocable trusts, which can’t be changed but can provide asset protection or act as a tax shelter. Grantors of irrevocable trusts must typically select someone else to act as trustee — instead of doing it themselves — to take advantage of these benefits. The trustee of an irrevocable trust can only withdraw money to use for the benefit of the trust according to terms set by the grantor, like disbursing income to beneficiaries or paying maintenance costs, and never for personal use. Not following the rules of the trust document could be grounds for the trustee’s removal.
If you establish a revocable living trust, you may decide to act as the trustee. Created when you're alive, this type of trust can be modified or revoked, which provides flexibility since you can opt out and close the trust when it no longer suits your purposes.
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You might open a revocable family trust so that your children can receive the assets easily without being subject to probate. You might also name yourself and your spouse as co-trustees. As part of this arrangement, the grantor-trustee can typically withdraw money from the trust as they see fit, since they are the owner of the trust and the trust property, and retain an interest in it until they die. (You can create a living trust with Policygenius.)
A trust created upon your death based on instructions in your will is called a testamentary trust.
After the grantor-trustee passes away, a successor trustee will manage the trust, which becomes irrevocable, since the grantor can no longer change or dissolve the trust. Now the trustee must manage and withdraw funds from the trust as befits the beneficiaries according to the trust document.
Thinking about creating a trust? Read about a revocable vs irrevocable trust.
The successor trustee to the living trust or the trustee of an irrevocable trust can only use trust property according to the terms of the trust agreement, set by the grantor who gives instructions on how these funds should be used after their death. For example, the trustee may use trust money to pay for the grantor’s burial costs if that’s what the document says.
(See also: Can a trustee sell trust property?)
Trust funds may be distributed to a trust's beneficiaries all at once or over time, which means the trustee may need to keep managing the assets. The trustee might be paid for their services, but they should not take, borrow, or lend the trust funds or trust income for their own personal use. Instead, the trustee can only use the trust funds for costs related to the trust.
After the grantor has passed away, the trustee must file an income tax return for the trust and they can use the trust money to pay the trust's income taxes.
They can withdraw money to maintain trust property, like paying property taxes or homeowners insurance or for general upkeep of a house owned by the trust.
The trustee can use trust funds to pay filing fees, registration fees, title fees as necessary when transferring assets into the trust’s name.
If the trustee is responsible for investments, they can pay for management and trading fees with the trust’s money.
If the trustee consults an accountant, attorney, or financial planner, they can be paid with trust money.
Learn more about what a trustee does.
The trustee is legally obligated to follow the terms of the trust document, and if they don’t — like if they steal or mismanage funds — they can be removed from their position. A trust beneficiary can file a petition with the probate court for removal of a trustee. The beneficiary can then petition for a new trustee.
Related article: Can a trustee remove a beneficiary from a trust?
The trustee usually establishes a checking account for the trust so the money can be disbursed. Only the trustee — not the beneficiaries — can access the trust checking account. They can write checks or make electronic transfers to a beneficiary, and even withdraw cash, though that could make it more difficult to keep track of the trust’s finances. (The trustee must keep a record of all the trust's finances.)
Sometimes the trustee will make purchases for the beneficiary instead of giving them money to spend on their own. This may happen when the grantor wants more control over a beneficiary who is financially irresponsible, or if the beneficiary needs to qualify for benefits and cannot be seen as having any money to spend on their own.
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