In California, a trustee has a significant amount of control over the trust administration process. The trustee has the power to gather the assets of the trust, work with creditors, and distribute the trust assets to the beneficiaries. The trustee also owes the beneficiaries of the trust (and the trust itself) a fiduciary duty to act in their best interests at all times. Unfortunately, this does not always happen, and trustees sometimes breach their duties to beneficiaries to the extent that it justifies their removal .
The trust and estate litigation attorneys of Hackard Law are committed to helping to protect the rights of trust beneficiaries and understand how to remove problem trustees quickly and efficiently. To discuss your case with one of our lawyers, send us an email, or please call (213) 357-5200 for our Los Angeles office or (916) 313-3030 to reach our Santa Clara office.
The Duties of a California Trustee
As mentioned above, trustees owe trust beneficiaries a fiduciary duty, which can consist of several specific tasks. These include the duty of loyalty, the duty to act with ordinary care with regard to trust assets, the duty to act impartially with regard to trust beneficiaries, the duty to collect trust assets, and the duty to administer the trust according to its terms.
If a trustee breaches these or any other of the duties imposed by the trust, common law, or the California Probate Code, the beneficiaries may have grounds to remove the trustee.
A trustee may breach those duties through:
- Colluding with one or some beneficiaries to the detriment of others
- Engaging in self-dealing
- Commingling personal assets with trust assets
- Negligent management of trust assets
- Misappropriating trust assets
- Failing to administer a trust by its terms
If a trustee breaches duties to the trust or its beneficiaries or engages in conduct that the trust specifies as grounds for removal, an interested party may possibly remove the trustee. People without significant legal training and experience may find these grounds for removal difficult to identify, so anyone considering the removal of a trustee should speak to an attorney before initiating any legal action or discussing it with the trustee.
The Process of Removing a Trustee
If a trust is revocable, the settlor (the person who created the trust) may simply revoke the trust or amend the trust documents to install a new trustee. Things become more complicated, however, when a trust is irrevocable--which is automatically the case when the settlor is no longer alive or the trust deed indicates irrevocable status.
To remove the trustee of an irrevocable trust, a court must get involved. To start the process, a party with an interest in the trust (like a beneficiary or a co-trustee) must file a petition with the appropriate court requesting that the court remove the trustee. The court will likely hold a hearing to examine the evidence supporting the petition's request and afford the trustee an opportunity to respond to the issues raised in the petition.
If the court finds sufficient evidence to remove the trustee, it will do so and appoint a successor trustee. In some cases, the trust documents may identify this successor trustee, while in others, the court may appoint a suitable trustee, such as an attorney.
Do You Need a Lawyer to Remove a Trustee?
Many trustees are curious as to whether they can remove a trustee without the assistance of an attorney, particularly in cases in which a trustee has made decisions that have harmed the trust's assets or seem like a plain breach of fiduciary duties.
Trustees, however, do have discretion when it comes to the management of trust assets, and poor decision-making or investments that perform badly are not sufficient to justify the removal of the trustee. In addition, in many cases, the interests of the trust itself and individual beneficiaries may not align, and a perceived breach of a particular duty (say, of loyalty to the interests of the beneficiary) may not actually amount to an actionable breach in the eyes of the law.
For this reason, as a party with an interest in a trust, consult with a lawyer who focuses on trusts to determine whether you have justification to remove a trustee at all. If you have grounds to remove the trustee, hire an attorney to present your case to the court in the strongest light possible. An attorney familiar with trust law in California will identify the specific actions on the part of the trustee that justify removal and present them to the court in a way that will maximize the chances that you will obtain a favorable result.
Finally, in some cases, aggrieved beneficiaries may hold trustees liable for any losses they have caused. An attorney will identify whether this applies in your case and may file a civil suit to recover damages on your behalf.
Call Hackard Law to Schedule a Consultation with a Los Angeles Trust Litigation Attorney
As the beneficiary of a trust, do everything you can to protect your interests in the assets of the trust. In some cases, this means asking the court to remove the trustee who is responsible for the administration of your trust.
At Hackard Law, we regularly work with trust beneficiaries who are seeking the removal of a trustee and do everything we can to obtain a favorable result in each case we take. We will review the facts of your case at no cost to you and advise you as to whether we believe that you have legal grounds to remove the trustee of your trust. To schedule an appointment with a trust litigation lawyer in Los Angeles, call our office today at (916) 229-6991 or send us an email through our online contact form.