by Elizabeth Meck
The Fiduciary Law Blog recently posted an article in which we observed that “fiduciary” is a vague term encompassing many different people and several different relationships. Under Colorado law, a fiduciary includes, without limitation, a trustee of any trust, a personal representative, guardian, conservator, receiver, partner, agent, or “any other person acting in a fiduciary capacity for any person, trust, or estate.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-1-103(2).
Any fiduciary must abide by the duties and obligations generally known as “fiduciary duties,” which are among the highest duties under the law. This post is the first in a short series in which we will discuss the fiduciary duties applied to trustees, when it may be appropriate for a trustee to delegate certain duties, and a trustee’s potential liability for breaching these important duties.
In the context of a trust, and as stated in the Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 2, a fiduciary relationship with respect to property arises out of the manifestation of an intention to create the fiduciary relationship and subjects the trustee “to equitable duties to deal with the property for the benefit of another person.”
The trustee’s most basic function is to hold title to and manage trust property pursuant to the terms of the trust instrument, which he must do with the utmost loyalty, good faith and honesty. Generally, the fiduciary duties applicable to a trustee are: the duty of loyalty, the duty to exercise care and skill in managing the trust assets and administering the trust, and the duty to remain impartial to all beneficiaries. This post will focus on the duty of loyalty.
The duty of loyalty, perhaps the broadest of the fiduciary duties, has been described as “inherent” in the trust relationship. George Gleason Bogert & George Taylor Bogert, The Law of Trusts and Trustees § 543 (2d rev. ed. 1980). This duty requires the trustee to remain loyal to the beneficiaries of the trust in all aspects of trust administration. Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 170.1 Fundamental to the duty of loyalty is the obligation to adhere to the terms of the trust instrument itself and to undertake all actions in accordance with applicable law. Restatement (Third) of Trusts § 76; Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 169.
As defined in Scott on Trusts, the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty is the “duty of a trustee to administer the trust solely in the interest of the beneficiaries.” Austin W. Scott & William F. Fratcher, Scott on Trusts § 170 (4th ed. 1987) (emphasis added). A trustee, therefore, “is not permitted to place himself in a position where it would be for his own benefit to violate his duty to the beneficiaries.” Id. Under the duty of loyalty, the trustee must refrain from engaging in any act of self-dealing or conflicts of interests that may result in increased benefit to himself. Such transactions would constitute a breach of the trustee’s duty of loyalty, may expose the trustee to personal liability, and may be voided by the beneficiaries. See Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 170 cmt. b.
Further, the duty of loyalty requires the trustee to “communicate to [all beneficiaries] all material facts” in connection with the administration of the trust. Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 170. Failure to inform beneficiaries of important decisions or material facts may not only constitute a breach of the duty of loyalty, but frequently creates feelings of distrust toward the trustee. It is important, therefore, for the trustee to remain transparent, which we discussed in a prior blog post.
The duty of loyalty applies to the administration of a non-charitable trust as well as charitable trusts. This is the case even though a charitable trust may exist perpetually. A trustee of a charitable trust must administer the trust solely in the interests of effectuating the trust’s charitable purposes. See Restatement (Second) of Trusts § 379 cm. a.
As stated above, the duty of loyalty is broad and requires the trustee to regularly ensure that he is acting solely in the best interest of the beneficiaries. It is wise for any trustee to step back occasionally to make sure that his actions as trustee are taken in accordance with the duty of loyalty.
In the next blog entry in this series, we will discuss the duty of the trustee to exercise care and skill in the management of trust assets and administration of the trust.
1For further discussion on the duty of loyalty, see Austin W. Scott & William F. Fratcher, Scott on Trusts §§ 169-186 (4th ed. 1987); and George Gleason Bogert & George Taylor Bogert, The Law of Trusts and Trustees § 543-543(V) (rev. 2d rev. ed. replacement vol. 1993).