by Jody H. Hall, Paralegal
“No, you cannot have it. The trust is a private document” – Well, maybe, but not to the exclusion of the beneficiaries, and I mean ALL of the beneficiaries, named in that testamentary instrument.
Prior to returning to Colorado a few months ago, I worked in the Legal Department for a national charity where the responsibility of my team (totaling more than 8 attorneys, paralegals and staff) was to represent the charity’s interests in trust and estate matters around the country.
Coming from a background as a trusts and estates paralegal for well-respected law firms, I was absolutely shocked at the number of times that attorneys or fiduciaries (both professional and individual) would respond in the negative to a request for a copy of the will or trust or financial information regarding the gift of which we had just received notice. There seemed to be this prevailing attitude that, because we were a non-profit organization, we would simply take whatever we were given or what was left over and be grateful for it, even in large trusts or estates where the designated gift was a portion or entirety of the residuary estate. Unfortunately there was not a consistent understanding that if Charity XYZ and Cousin Sue are each to receive one-half of the residuary estate, they need to be treated equally.
Most charities do not intend to be adversarial or difficult. Any money spent on legal fees reduces the ultimate charitable gift of the donor; however, they have a fiduciary obligation to the ultimate beneficiaries of their particular mission to ensure they receive everything to which they are ENTITLED! In Colorado, that means a copy of the terms of the trust which affect the interest; other jurisdictions require a complete copy of the instrument, including codicils and/or amendments. Almost every jurisdiction requires providing at least some information about the assets or accountings.
As with many things in life, upfront communication is usually the best policy. My experience working for a “professional beneficiary” has reinforced and taught me several things about good estate and trust administration communications. Provide an initial notification as soon as possible at the beginning of the trust or estate administration. Provide periodic updates. If there are assets that may take some time to sell, litigation or any other factors that may delay the distribution, let your contact know and they will calendar their system accordingly. I know that I was less likely to question or challenge things when I received regular contact from the attorney or fiduciary.
So if the Decedent has been deceased for several years and you are just now sending a check for several hundreds of thousands of dollars as their first notification of the gift under a will or trust, do not be surprised if the charity requests additional information (including, but not limited to, the testamentary documents, an inventory or list of assets and an accounting) before signing a waiver or release. After all, charities are beneficiaries too!