Understanding Corporate Trustees

October 16, 2020

Seven Reasons to Have a Professional Help You Build, Manage, and Protect Your Wealth

With people living longer and healthcare costs continuing to rise, our savings must grow larger and last longer. Deciding where to put your money in an uncertain market with so many investment options from which to choose can be very confusing, and making a wrong decision can be very costly.

One option you should not overlook is the bedrock of asset management and personal service—the corporate trustee.

What is a corporate trustee?

A corporate trustee is a bank trust department or trust company. Its employees can help you build, manage, and protect your wealth when you put your assets in a trust.

A trust is simply a legal document that lets you reduce unnecessary legal fees, save taxes, and keep control over your assets while you are living, if you become physically or mentally incapacitated, and after you die.

When you set up a trust, you need to name someone (a trustee) to manage the assets your trust controls. While you can choose just about any adult, there are very good reasons why you should consider a corporate trustee.

  1. Gain the advantage of years of experience. Because corporate trustees manage trusts on a daily basis, they are familiar with all kinds of trusts, tax and estate planning strategies, and the legal responsibilities of a trustee.

    They can manage the assets in your trust now and after you die as your trust directs—buying and selling assets, paying bills, filing tax returns, maintaining accurate records, and distributing income and assets. Most have experience with all kinds of assets, including stocks and bonds, real estate, farms, closely held businesses, mineral properties, international investments, and collectibles.
  2. Enjoy the potential of even greater investment returns. Corporate trustees give their full attention to managing trust assets—that is their job. And because their staff collectively has more experience and resources than an individual, they often achieve better results.

    After discussing your financial goals, risk tolerance, and long-term objectives with you, they will recommend the best investment strategy for you. Depending on how involved you want them to be, they can also provide ongoing advice, or even make decisions for you, to make sure your investments stay on track to reach your goals.
  3. Protect your wealth. Corporate trustees are regulated by both state and federal agencies. Also, most courts consider them experts and expect them to meet higher standards than a nonprofessional.
  4. Receive reliable, professional service. A corporate trustee will not become ill or die, divorce, go on vacation, move away, or become distracted by personal concerns or emotions as an individual might.
  5. Benefit from their objectivity. They will follow your trust instructions objectively and faithfully, something family members are often unable to do.
  6. Tap into their rich sources of advice and referrals. Corporate trustees routinely provide advice on investment, tax, retirement, and estate planning issues, and can refer you to attorneys and other qualified professionals as needed.
  7. Enjoy peace of mind. Knowing you have selected someone with experience and integrity to manage your financial affairs now and when you are no longer able to do so yourself can be very reassuring.

When would I use a corporate trustee?

If you set up an irrevocable trust (like a charitable or life insurance trust), or you plan to make gifts in trust—strategies often used to save estate taxes by removing assets now from your taxable estate—you will probably need to name someone other than yourself as trustee for tax reasons. A corporate trustee is a natural choice to make sure your irrevocable trust is administered properly.

If you set up a revocable living trust—to avoid probate when you die and prevent court control of your assets at incapacity—you can be your own trustee. Even so, there are many benefits to having a corporate trustee involved. They can assist you in several ways:

  1. As trustee. As trustee, a corporate trustee has full responsibility for managing your trust assets according to your instructions.

    This would be an excellent choice if you are elderly and have no one you can trust to take care of your financial affairs. You may be widowed, have no children or other trusted relatives living nearby (or do not want to burden them), or you and your spouse may be in declining health. You should also consider family dynamics when naming trustees. Sometimes, family members do not get along with each other and naming family members as trustees may not only hinder the administration of your trust but also could cause disputes within your family.

    Even if you are capable of managing your own trust, a corporate trustee can be a wise choice. You may not have the time, desire, or investment experience to manage your trust yourself, or perhaps you just feel that someone with more time and experience could do a better job than you.
  2. As co-trustee. If you want to take advantage of a corporate trustee’s investment experience but still be involved, you could have one work with you as co-trustee. Developing a working relationship with a corporate trustee now lets them become familiar with your objectives, your trust, and your beneficiaries’ needs and personalities while you are around and able to provide guidance and input.

    It would also allow you to see how they would perform in your absence, to evaluate their investment performance and service, and to see how comfortable you feel with them overall—a way to test drive them as trustee.
  3. As investment agent. You could also name a corporate trustee as an investment agent. While a co-trustee has equal responsibility with you (usually both signatures are required to transact business), an agent can have as much responsibility as you wish.

    You can have an agent manage only a portion of your trust’s assets (your stocks and bonds, for example) or just provide you with investment advice, with you making all final investment decisions.
  4. As successor trustee. If you decide to be your own trustee (for example, of your revocable living trust), consider naming a corporate trustee as your successor trustee. In this capacity, they will step in and manage your trust for you when you can no longer act due to incapacity or death. Many people like the idea of having a professional take care of the paperwork, tax filings, and other final details.

Couldn’t I name a relative or friend instead?

You could, but keep in mind that it is not always a good choice to involve family and friends with your trust.

They may be too busy with their own affairs, reside in a distant area, not get along with other family members, or not be responsible or experienced enough to manage the trust assets. An innocent error by a well-meaning but inexperienced relative or friend could negate your careful planning and cost your beneficiaries thousands of dollars.

One option is to have a relative (perhaps one or more of your adult children) and a corporate trustee work together. This would give you both the professional experience and objectivity of a corporate trustee and the personal involvement of someone who knows you.

Do I lose control if I use a corporate trustee?

Not if the trust is prepared correctly. With most trusts, you can change your trustee at any time if you are not satisfied. Even with an irrevocable trust, you or your beneficiaries can have the right to change the corporate trustee.

Also, the trustee you select must follow the instructions you put in your trust—while you are living, if you become incapacitated, and after you die. That is because a trust is a binding legal contract, and your trustee can be held liable if your instructions are not followed.

How safe are trust assets?

Even if a bank or trust company fails, trust assets are safe. By law, trust assets must be kept separate from all other assets. They cannot be loaned out, mixed with the corporate trustee’s own assets, or used to satisfy its creditors. Because of these safeguards, trust assets are not insured by the FDIC.

You are also protected against fraud, theft (for example, if an employee takes trust assets and disappears), or if they make an error administering your trust. However, there is of course no insurance or bond that will protect you if your assets lose value simply due to a decline in market values.

Should everyone use a corporate trustee?

No, of course not. But many more people should consider one. Most people are just not aware of the many benefits a corporate trustee can offer them and their families.

You need to objectively consider your situation and the type of trust you set up. If you have a modest estate and your trust is fairly simple, you may be fine being your own trustee and having a capable family member step in for you when you can no longer manage your trust yourself. Due to the inherent liability associated with the position and the strict regulatory laws corporate trustees must follow, an increasing number of corporate trustees require that your assets be of a certain value before they will agree to act as a corporate trustee. If your net worth is below a certain amount, you may not even have the option of having a corporate trustee administer your trust.

However, if your estate is larger, has a variety of assets, includes tax planning, or if you doubt your relatives’ capabilities or intentions, you should definitely consider a corporate trustee.

Are there any disadvantages to using a corporate trustee?

Because corporate trustees must objectively follow the instructions for the trusts they manage, some beneficiaries (especially those who want the money now instead of when the trust states) have found them to be uncooperative.

But that may be exactly what you want. One reason why many trusts are set up, and a corporate trustee chosen, is to keep a beneficiary from getting the money until whoever set up the trust intended.

However, if you are concerned about a corporate trustee being too impersonal, you can always name a family member or close friend to act with them as co-trustee.

Is a corporate trustee expensive?

Most are very reasonable, especially when you compare their fee to the costs of paying others for estate and tax planning advice, for investment management, for preparing tax returns, and for investment trading commissions.

A corporate trustee typically provides all these services and more for only a small percentage of the value of the assets they manage for you. (Fees are published, so you can find out what they are.) Further, because their compensation is based on how much those assets are worth (instead of on how many trades they make for you), a corporate trustee is motivated to help your assets grow.

How can I evaluate a corporate trustee?

Talk to several. Visit them if you can. Ask how long the trust department has been in business, how many trusts they manage, minimum and average size of trusts they manage (most require a certain amount of assets), and how much experience their people have in the trust business.

Compare investment returns, fees (including when and how much the last increase was), and services. Ask to see samples of statements or reports you would receive and see how easy they are to understand.

Facts and numbers are important, but so are the people. Do they seem to genuinely care about you and your family? Do they listen and seem to understand your concerns? Can you understand them? How confident are you that they will be there for you and your family when they are needed?