A trustee has a duty under the law to communicate with beneficiaries and keep them reasonably informed as to the progress of the trust administration. Depending on your state's law, such duty to inform may require the trustee to give beneficiaries a copy of the trust document, provide information regarding the anticipated timeframe of the trust administration, and prepare an annual accounting (summary of the trust's income and expenses). Unfortunately, some trustees fail to comply with this duty to inform, leaving beneficiaries in the dark as to what is happening with the trust. Some trustees are ignorant as to what their duties are under the law and think that being a trustee means that they can do whatever they want. Regardless, if your trustee is unresponsive to your requests for information regarding the trust, what should you do?
Examine Your Contact Method
First things first, if your trustee has not responded to you, try examining your contact method. How have you tried to contact them? If you have left them a phone message, try sending them an email instead. If a text message has received no response, try sending a letter through the mail. And it should be obvious, but if you are argumentative or hostile, it is not surprising that the trustee is not responding, even if they have a duty to do so. If you cannot speak in a civil manner to the trustee, try keeping all of your communication in writing, be clear about your questions and requests, and do so without accusations or threats. If you have tried multiple methods of communication with your trustee in a civilized manner and still have not received any response, then it is probably time to take it to the next level of involving the attorney.
Involve the Attorney
Involving the attorney is really a two-fold process. First, if an attorney represents the trustee, you can try contacting the trustee's attorney. Even if a trustee does not understand their duty to inform and communicate with beneficiaries, the attorney should understand this duty and can encourage the trustee to comply with their duty or, if authorized by the trustee, communicate the information on behalf of the trustee. In fact, depending on the terms of the legal engagement, the trustee may have arranged for their attorney to handle all communications with beneficiaries. You can contact the attorney by phone and then follow up with an email or letter outlining the information you are seeking and the attempts you have made to contact the trustee.
Second, you may want to seek out your own attorney to represent you. An attorney can give you an impartial point of view and provide you information about what your rights are and what steps you can take to enforce them. If emotions are running high between you and the trustee, having an objective intermediary step in who can authoritatively describe the trustee's duties and the beneficiary's rights can help get the flow of information going.
File a Petition with the Court
If your efforts to communicate with the trustee, either on your own or with the help of an attorney, are still being met with no response, then your last option is to file a petition with your local court. It is important to consult an attorney with experience in trust administration prior to seeking court involvement, which often results in further delay and costs. If a trustee does not respond to the petition, the court has the power to remove the trustee and to hold them liable for any damages the beneficiaries have suffered as a result of the trustee's failure to comply with their duty to inform. Additionally, filing a court petition opens an array of legal tools such as subpoenas, depositions, and requests for documents that can help you obtain the information you are looking for, either from the trustee or directly from third parties such as banks or financial institutions. While filing a petition with the court should not be your first step, if a trustee refuses to respond to other efforts, then it can become a beneficiary's only option to get the information the beneficiary is entitled to.
Although a trustee is legally obligated to communicate with beneficiaries and provide them with certain information, a trustee can sometimes be unresponsive—either because they are ignorant of their duties, they have a fundamental misunderstanding of their duties, or a variety of other reasons. Whatever the reason, if your trustee is not responding to your requests for information, give them the benefit of the doubt and try a different method. If that does not work, try contacting the attorney that represents the trustee or hire an attorney of your own. As a last resort, you may have to file a petition with the local court if the trustee remains unresponsive. If you have questions about a current trust administration that you are part of, give us a call to schedule an appointment so we can discuss your concerns.