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My Aunt Passed Away, and I’m the Trustee

My aunt passed away this week. She had put her house and antiques into a trust — and named me as trustee! I know this is a big responsibility, and I’m worried. Some family members are already calling me up, asking how much they’ll get from the house sale and if it’s OK to go pick up their favorite piece of furniture!

I’m sorry for your loss. This is a difficult time for you, I know, but it’s good you’re thinking about this. Being a trustee is a big responsibility, with clearly defined duties. It’s your job to guard the assets for the beneficiaries and make sure they are distributed the way your aunt wanted.

When your aunt set up the trust she became the “grantor” of her trust. In Arkansas, the law spells out some very specific steps that a trustee must take after the death of the grantor of a trust. There are also deadlines that have to be met. It is very important to talk to an experienced attorney so that you are — and stay!— in full compliance.

When your aunt died, the trust became irrevocable. That means it can’t be changed, no matter what your family wants. You can’t change the beneficiaries or their share of the assets. It sounds like the family knows that you’re the trustee so they may be putting pressure on you to divide assets. You cannot spend any money unless it is in compliance with the law and with the terms of the trust. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the advice of an experienced attorney.

The trustee has many other duties. You may need to search for all assets and you’ll probably have to get the assets appraised. You have to do a diligent search to determine if there are lawsuits that may affect the estate, either as an asset or as a liability. You must give notice to all creditors, known and unknown. There may be tax matters that require an expert’s help. You’ll have to keep records of all expenses, like funeral costs. And, eventually, you’ll have to distribute the assets the way your aunt’s trust calls for them to be distributed, including taking care of all proper legal documents.

As trustee you are liable for following the law and performing your duties as trustee in a diligent manner, under the law.

So, you’re right. This is a big responsibility. It would be a good idea to talk to an experienced trust attorney, and soon, so you understand how to move forward.