A trust is a legal arrangement pursuant to which a grantor (a.k.a., settlor, donor, trustor) transfers property to a trustee to administer on behalf of one or more beneficiaries according to the terms of the instrument governing the arrangement. There are two fundamental characteristics of a trust. The first is the high degree of fiduciary duty expected of a trustee. The second, which is generally the least intuitive feature of trusts, particularly for non-lawyers, is the bifurcation of legal ownership and beneficial ownership.
Bifurcation of Property Ownership
In the trust context, the trustee is the legal owner of the trust assets. Although it is convenient to think of a trust as a separate legal entity, and particularly as a separate taxable entity for income tax purposes, at common law, a trust had no existence separate from the person of the trustee. So, for example, you will see property owned in the name of “X, as Trustee of the ABC Trust” rather than simply in the name of “the ABC Trust.” This can sometimes be a source of frustration if there is a change in trustees, when banks or other financial institutions may require that their accounts be re-titled to reflect the new trustee, or worse, when local property tax divisions insist that real estate be similarly re-titled. An argument can be made that this re-titling is not necessary because the trust still owns the property, but a counterargument can also be made that because the trustee is the legal owner, a change in trustee is an ownership change that needs to be reflected properly in the title. As a practical matter, you will almost always find that the path of least resistance—retitling the property—is the best course of action.
The trustee is the legal owner of, and is therefore tasked with administering, the trust assets, but the trustee does so only on behalf of the beneficiaries. The trustee can get no personal benefit from the trust assets (unless of course the trustee is also a beneficiary), though trustees are entitled to trustees’ commissions as compensation for their efforts. The trustee’s role is an active one, in contrast to that of the beneficiaries, which is primarily a passive one: merely to receive the benefits of the trust in the form of distributions when needed. Beneficiaries can play a more active role at times, however. They can enforce the trust by bringing a legal action against a trustee who is not administering the trust properly. And if the terms of the trust instrument provide them with authority to do so, they may have a role in certain aspects of the trust administration, for example, by exercising rights of withdrawal or other powers over distributions, or by naming successor trustees.
What about the settlor of trust; what role does he or she have? In fact, beyond creating the trust and transferring property to it, usually the settlor has very little role. As noted above with respect to beneficiaries, the terms of the trust agreement may provide the settlor with certain ongoing authority, for example in naming successor trustees. And with revocable trusts, the settlor typically reserves the unfettered right to amend or revoke the trust. But in most irrevocable trusts, the settlor has no authority to influence the administration of the trust, at least not directly. This can come as a surprise to clients, who often view the trust assets as “their money” even after they transfer those assets to a trust. The fact that settlors often misunderstand their role in a trust context gives rise to two key takeaways for you as attorneys. First, where you represent clients setting up irrevocable trusts, explain to them clearly and often that transfers of assets to the trusts are irrevocable, and once they transfer assets, they do not own those assets anymore. And second, where you represent trustees who are being pressured by settlors to act in a certain way, advise them that if they allow the settlor to influence them to act in a manner contrary to the best interests of the beneficiaries, they may be personally liable to those damaged beneficiaries. That can be very tricky, because the settlor usually chooses the trustee, and often chooses a particular trustee because of that trustee’s loyalty to the settlor; yet, once the trustee accepts his or her office, legally, his or her sole loyalty must be to the beneficiaries. No one ever said being a trustee was easy!
Trust vs. Trust Agreement
A brief word about terminology: what is the difference between a trust and a trust agreement? A trust is the actual legal arrangement among the parties described above. A trust agreement (or, more broadly, a trust instrument) is the written document that sets forth the conditions under which the trust is to be administered. It is easy to be imprecise in this regard: you may, for example, hear people ask to see a copy of the trust, when what they really want to see is a copy of the trust agreement.
A trust agreement is sometimes referred to as a contract. That is not technically correct; a trust agreement is an agreement, but it is not a contract. One party to a contract does not, unless expressly stated, owe fiduciary duties to another, whereas, as noted above, fiduciary duty is a hallmark of the trustee/ beneficiary relationship. Also, a contract may create ongoing obligations among the parties, but it does not create a separate legal/taxable entity. A robust discussion of all of the subtle differences between a trust agreement and a contract are beyond the scope of this article, as are the differences between trusts and other arrangements, such as escrows. (It is, after all, more important to know what a trust is than what it is not.)