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What is a Co-Trustee?

A Co-Trustee is one of two or more individuals or entities that have been jointly appointed to manage a trust. Co-trustees collaborate to administer the trust's assets, make distributions to beneficiaries, and fulfill any other obligations or duties outlined in the trust document. The arrangement facilitates a more balanced and collaborative management of trust affairs.

Benefits of Having Co-Trustees

Division of Responsibilities: When co-trustees have different skills, they can collaborate effectively for the trust's benefit. For instance, if one Co-Trustee has a financial planning and portfolio optimization background, they could focus on maximizing the returns from the trust's financial assets. On the other hand, another Co-Trustee with real estate expertise can concentrate on property management and rental income generation. This division of labor leads to more specialized and effective trust management.

Checks and Balances. The Co-Trustee setup provides an internal system of checks and balances. If one trustee makes a decision, the other can review and offer a second opinion, making it less likely for errors, fraud, or mismanagement to occur. This ensures higher levels of transparency and accountability in managing the trust’s assets.

Distributions to Beneficiaries. A shared decision-making process can be particularly useful when making distributions to beneficiaries. Co-trustees can cross-verify claims and review paperwork collectively, resulting in fairer, more accurate disbursement of trust funds. This cooperative approach safeguards the trust's assets and ensures they are utilized for their intended purposes.

Continuity and Stability. Having Co-Trustees ensures a smooth transition if one trustee can no longer fulfill their duties. The remaining trustee can continue to operate without needing to go through a lengthy and complicated process of appointing a new trustee, which benefits both the administration and beneficiaries of the trust.

Co-Trustees and Contingent Trustees Distinguished

While both Co-Trustees and Contingent Trustees play crucial roles, they serve different functions. Co-trustees share the responsibility of administering the trust from the get-go, and their powers are active as long as they are serving in that capacity. Contingent Trustees, however, only step in under predetermined circumstances, such as the death or incapacity of the primary trustee. 

What to avoid when appointing co-trustees

When it comes to choosing co-trustees, not everyone will be a suitable candidate. While expertise, availability, and trustworthiness are crucial positive attributes, there are some red flags you should be aware of:

Potential Conflicts of Interest: Appointing a co-trustee with a vested interest that conflicts with the trust's objectives or the best interests of the beneficiaries can be problematic. For example, avoid designating someone who stands to gain personally or professionally by manipulating trust assets or steering distributions in a specific direction. This can erode the integrity of the trust, potentially leading to legal challenges or a breakdown of the trust's primary objectives.

Bias or Partiality: Another concern is the potential for bias or partiality, especially when dealing with families with complex dynamics, such as blended families or sibling rivalries. While you may consider appointing a family member for their insider perspective, this can sometimes backfire if that individual has a history of taking sides or showing favoritism. Unbiased and equitable administration of the trust is crucial; therefore, avoid appointing co-trustees who are known to have preferences or preconceived opinions that could unfairly influence their decision-making.

Example: John sets up a trust and places in it many types of diverse assets, including real estate, stocks, and bonds. His two children, Alice, a financial analyst, and Bob, a real estate developer, are named as Co-Trustees. Alice focuses on investment strategies to grow the financial assets, while Bob ensures the real estate properties are well-maintained and rented. They meet quarterly to discuss trust matters, review beneficiary needs, and make joint decisions on distributions and charitable donations. This arrangement leverages their unique skill sets, provides checks and balances, and ensures the smooth operation of the trust.

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