What is a co-trustee & what do they do?

When more than one trustee is appointed to manage a trust, they are co-trustees.

Elissa

By

Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Personal Finance Editor

Elissa Suh is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about finance and insurance since 2019, with an emphasis in estate planning and mortgages. Her writing has been cited by MarketWatch, CNBC, and Betterment.

Published February 15, 2021|3 min read

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When there are multiple trustees appointed to manage a trust, they are called co-trustees. A trustee manages and administers a trust, including selling and distributing trust property, and filing taxes for trust income when necessary. Co-trustees typically share the same duties and powers, unless the trust document instructs otherwise. 

A trust is an estate planning tool that can hold your assets and pass them to beneficiaries in the future. The person who opens the trust —  called the grantor, settlor or trustor — may choose to appoint co-trustees to share responsibilities overseeing the trust, but sometimes having multiple trustees can cause disagreements that can delay trust administration. Co-trustees usually need to come to a consensus when making decisions about the trust.

Key Takeaways

  • Co-trustees must cooperate when managing trust property and overseeing trust administration

  • You can give each co-trustee specific or different duties in your trust document

What does a co-trustee do?

Trustees and co-trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in best interest of the trust beneficiaries. A trust is a separate entity that holds the trust's assets and the co-trustees are responsible for managing them according to the grantor's wishes. Depending on how complex the trust is, the co-trustees duties may not consist of much more than distributing trust assets to beneficiaries upon the grantor's death and doing a final trust accounting. 

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In other cases, such as with more complex trusts that last for years, co-trustees have more obligations, like maintaining trust property, filing and paying trust taxes with trust funds, and overseeing investments. (It's not uncommon to use a professional trustee, like a trust company, for large estates where the main objective of the trust is growing trust assets.) 

Related article: Can a trustee sell trust property?

Who can be a co-trustee?

The grantor can choose almost anyone except a minor to be co-trustee. If you’re the grantor and trustee of your revocable living trust, you may also appoint someone to serve as co-trustee with you. For example, you and your spouse could be co-trustees of your family trust or joint trust. You could also name your daughter as successor trustee to take over once you pass away. She would act as co-trustee with your surviving spouse.

You can open a revocable living trust with Policygenius using attorney-approved tools. 

Can a co-trustee act alone?

Co-trustees must be in agreement (either unanimously or by the majority) when making decisions unless the trust agreement expressly allows one co-trustee to act independently. For example, the trust agreement may only allow a co-trustee to serve only in limited roles or circumstances, like when the other co-trustee is unavailable.

If co-trustees have disagreements, they can take one another to court and file a written objection, and even ask the court for instruction if they cannot come to a decision. A co-trustee can also try to remove another co-trustee with help from the grantor or the trust beneficiaries, who have the right to petition the court for trustee removal. (Beneficiaries can go one step farther and sue a co-trustee for losses that result from their mishandling of trust administration.) 

It’s important to be clear with your intentions in your trust document so your co-trustees don’t have to guess. Squabbling and disagreements will lengthen the time it takes the beneficiary to their inheritance.