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Successor Trustee Step-by-Step Checklist

If you’ve just been named the Successor Trustee of a trust, you should make yourself aware of your responsibilities. Learn more with this guide.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

If you've recently been named the Successor Trustee of a Trust, it's essential to make yourself aware of your new responsibilities. Check out our comprehensive Successor Trustee Checklist that we designed to help guide you through the maze of Trust administration.

What Does a Successor Trustee Do?

A Successor Trustee is someone responsible for managing the affairs of a Trust when the original Trustee is unable or unwilling to continue. For example, if the primary Trustee were to pass away or decline the position, the Successor Trustee would come into effect.

As a Successor Trustee, you are entrusted with the management and final distribution of the Trust's assets according to the terms outlined in the trust document. This fiduciary duty requires meticulous attention to detail and strict compliance with legal obligations and guidelines.

Successor Trustee Initial Responsibilities

Upon learning that you've been named a Successor Trustee, there are some initial steps you should take to step into the role and prepare for your responsibilities:

  1. Get in touch with the Grantor to clarify their expectations and discuss the specifics of their wishes.

  2. Ask the Grantor where all important documents, including their original Declaration of Trust, are going to be stored so you can easily find them when needed.

  3. Obtain a copy of the Declaration of Trust and any other legal documents associated with the Trust. It's important to have these documents on hand in case you need to refer to them.

  4. Familiarize yourself with the Trust's terms and conditions, including any specific instructions or guidelines outlined by the Grantor.

  5. Create a list of all assets held within the Trust, including personal property, real estate, investments, and financial accounts. This will help you keep track of the trust's assets and ensure they are managed properly.

  6. Review this Successor Trustee checklist that outlines your responsibilities and duties and use it as your handy guide.

Successor Trustee Step-by-Step Guide After the Grantor’s Death

Once you've been formally appointed to your role, you'll need to know what actions you need to take upon the passing of the Trust's Grantor. For a detailed description of duties, be sure to refer to our guide, Successor Trustee Duties When the Grantor Has Passed.

For now, here is a step-by-step overview of suggested actions:

Step 1: Locate trust documents and account for all assets

As the Successor Trustee, one of your immediate responsibilities after the Grantor's passing is to secure all trust assets. This involves taking tangible steps to ensure their safety and integrity. Beyond documentation, real-world protective measures are necessary. For example, if the Grantor lived alone and their residence is part of the trust's assets, consider changing the locks to prevent unauthorized access and protect the possessions from potential damage or theft.

Also, consider redirecting the deceased's mail to your address or the estate attorney's address. This ensures receipt of important documents, bills, or correspondences related to the Trust while safeguarding personal information.

Step 2: Notify all pertinent individuals of the death

As a Successor Trustee, you are responsible for notifying relevant parties of the Grantor's passing. This includes Beneficiaries, immediate family members, and those who have the right to contest the Trust.

Step 3: Notify Social Security Office of the death

Notify the Social Security Administration of the grantor's passing promptly. This task is crucial to avoid complications with social security benefits. If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, they must be stopped to prevent overpayment and the ensuing payback process.

Step 4: Find all utility bills and make sure they are paid

Ensure the continuity of vital services by finding and paying utility bills promptly. This includes day-to-day utilities like electricity, gas, and water, as well as insurance premiums for Trust assets. Regularly check incoming mail for any bills to either ensure timely payment if you need services to continue, or to cancel the account and stop future payments. This helps protect assets and maintain the estate's overall value during the Trust administration process.

Step 5: Make arrangements for the funeral or memorial service

Arranging the funeral or memorial service is an important task that may find its way on the checklist, unless these duties have been delegated to another agent, such as the Executor of the Will. (Although this is often the same individual.)

This involves decisions about the service's nature, location, guest list, and honoring the deceased's wishes and legacy. Communication with family and friends is crucial to ensure decisions reflect the desires and values of the deceased.

One specific task is placing an obituary in local or national newspapers if the decedent requested it. An obituary serves as an announcement of the death and a celebration of the person's life. It can include details about their achievements, surviving family, and upcoming service. If including an obituary, write it to truly capture the individual and arrange its publication with the necessary newspapers or online platforms. Grab our guide on how to write an obituary or death notice here.

Step 6: Gather personal records of the deceased

Your next task is to gather the deceased's personal records. This includes checkbooks, tax returns, investment and savings accounts, and other financial information. These documents provide a detailed review of the deceased's financial history and help you understand their financial obligations, tax liabilities, and assets for distribution.

You'll want to locate the decedent's online banking information, as the checking account is the best place to identify regular payments or subscriptions that need to be stopped.  Look for previous tax returns for an overview of their finances. Collect other financial records like bank statements, brokerage statements, insurance policies, and property titles. Organize these records for easy future access and remember to safeguard them as part of your responsibility.

Step 7: Take control of Trust accounts upon receipt of Death Certificate

Once you have obtained the death certificate, your next task is to take control of the Trust accounts. These may include bank accounts, investment accounts, and other financial assets that were under the Grantor's name. You will need to present the death certificate to the respective institutions to validate the death and your authority as the Successor Trustee. These institutions will then transfer control to you, allowing you to manage the accounts effectively. This step is crucial as it permits you to begin the process of paying the deceased's debts, distributing assets to beneficiaries, and fulfilling other duties detailed in this checklist.

Step 8: Notify credit agencies, banks, and institutions of the death 

Next, notify credit agencies, banks, and institutions about the death. Cancel the decedent's credit cards to prevent fraud. For a detailed guide on notifying credit card companies of death, refer to this article.

Step 9: Located all insurance policies and contact them

Be sure to locate all insurance policies belonging to the decedent, including life, health, auto, home, and others. Once located, inform each insurance company about the policyholder's death. Usually, you'll need to provide a copy of the death certificate and other information and documentation.

Note that this should be taken care of promptly. Upon receiving and approving the policyholder's death notice, the insurance company may process any payouts that can help settle debts and/or provide distributions to Beneficiaries.

Pay attention to whether or not the designated beneficiary of any insurance policy is the Trust itself or any other designated beneficiary.

Step 10: Determine any debts owed by the deceased

Last but not least, identify any outstanding debts left by the decedent. These can include mortgage payments, personal loans, credit card debt, medical bills, or other unpaid obligations.

Earlier on in this checklist, you were instructed to locate the decedent's documents, including those pertaining to their finances, insurance, and other important aspects of their life. During the process, be sure to set aside any documents that clue you in to any accounts that may need to be settled. Some debts may be settled using funds held by the Trust or insurance policy payouts. Be sure to follow the instructions left by the decedent.

Ensuring all debts are acknowledged and handled is crucial for an accurate representation of the estate's net value, enabling fair distribution of assets to beneficiaries.

FAQs About Successor Trustee Responsibilities

Next we'll go through and answer some of the most frequently asked questions about a Successor Trustee's responsibilities.

How do successor trustee duties change when the Grantor Is incapacitated?

If the Grantor becomes incapacitated, it is very important to refer to the Grantor's estate planning documents. If the primary Trustee is available and willing to carry out their role, you may not need to do anything. You would only become involved if the primary Trustee is unavailable.

If this becomes the case, your duties will shift towards managing the Trust assets for the benefit of the grantor. While there's still a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the Trust's beneficiaries, the focus is primarily on the needs and well-being of the Grantor during their lifetime.

For more detailed information about the specific duties and differences when the Grantor is incapacitated but still alive, please refer to our article Successor Trustee Duties When the Grantor is Incapacitated but Alive. This guide provides a comprehensive breakdown of the steps to be taken under these circumstances, allowing Successor Trustees to navigate their responsibilities effectively.

Do I have to serve as successor trustee?

No, serving as a Successor Trustee is not a mandatory obligation. You have the right to refuse or resign from the role if you feel incapable or unwilling to handle the responsibilities. If you're considering this option, take a look at our article “Do I Have to Serve as Successor Trustee?” which provides a more in-depth exploration of this matter.

Does a Successor Trustee get paid?

Yes, Successor Trustees are often entitled to reasonable compensation for their services, though the specifics can depend on the terms of the Trust agreement or local laws. It's a complex issue that involves various factors, such as time spent, duties performed, and more. For a detailed understanding, we've covered everything you need to know in our article, "Does a Successor Trustee Get Paid?".

Name Your Successor Trustee and Ensure Your Wishes Are Respected with Trust & Will

This guide introduced the role of a Successor Trustee, providing information about their duties and responsibilities. If you have been nominated as a Successor Trustee, your role includes acting in the best interests of the Beneficiaries while considering the Grantor's wishes.

Note that you aren't required to take on the role if you aren't comfortable. You can refuse or resign if you don't feel like you can fulfill your obligations, but you should ideally do this during the Grantor's lifetime so that they can name an alternate.

If you should decide to accept, be sure to review this step-by-step Successor Trustee checklist that will both inform and guide you through your duties.

Creating your own Trust and nominating a Trustee and Successor Trustee is a proactive step in making your wishes known. This legal arrangement provides a framework for managing and distributing assets which will also help in minimizing disputes among your loved ones. It’s a powerful method to uphold your legacy, manage wealth appropriately, and care for loved ones according to your wishes.

Don't leave your future up to chance. Trust & Will provides an accessible, comprehensive, and user-friendly platform to create your Trust-based estate plan. Whether you're starting from scratch or updating an existing plan, our expert team is here to guide you every step of the way. Start your journey with us today at Trust & Will.

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