A beneficiary of a family trust enjoys certain rights. These rights are established by the probate code, the set of statutes governing estate-related matters including family trusts. They are also established through the terms of the trust agreement itself. To ensure that the financial and other interests of a beneficiary of a family trust are fully protected, the beneficiary needs to understand the basic rights established by law and the trust agreement.
A family trust is established by an individual known as the grantor. The grantor is the owner of property (which can include cash, investments, real estate and other types of personal property) that is placed into the trust pursuant to the trust agreement. Once the trust is legally established---by the act of the grantor in signing the trust agreement---the property in the trust is overseen by the trustee. The trustee is appointed to this role by the grantor.
In most instances a trust, through the trustee, makes payments to beneficiaries named in the trust agreement. These payments normally come from the income or revenue generated by the property held within the estate. A trust agreement may also dictate the distribution of the property actually held in the trust to the beneficiaries at some future date or when a specific set of circumstances arises.
One area in which the beneficiary of a family trust is provided with express rights involves the conduct of the trustee in relationship to estate. The trustee owes to the trust and the beneficiary what is known as a fiduciary duty. Fiduciary duty means that the trustee must deal with the affairs of the estate (on behalf of the beneficiaries) in an honest and trustworthy manner.
If the trustee does not uphold her fiduciary duty, the beneficiary has the right to seek legal protection by taking legal action against the trustee.
The beneficiary of a family trust also has the right to a regular accounting of the assets, income and expenditures of the trust. The timing of regular accountings is established by the trust agreement itself in most cases.
In addition to regular accountings, the beneficiary has the right to request a special accounting if the circumstances warrant or support such a request. For example, if the beneficiary suspects that there is an issue in regard to the manner in which the trust is being managed, requesting a special accounting is a perfectly acceptable course for a beneficiary to take (and well within his rights).
As is the case with a violation of a fiduciary duty owed by the trustee to the beneficiary, if the trustee fails to provide an appropriate accounting in a timely manner, the beneficiary has the right to take legal action against the trustee---including seeking her removal from her position.
Replacement of Trustee
A beneficiary also has the right to seek the appointment of a replacement trustee. Such a request by a beneficiary normally is made by filing a petition in the local probate court requesting that the judge remove a sitting trustee and appoint a replacement.
There are various reasons why a beneficiary can seek replacement of a trustee. These reasons include mismanaging the affairs of the trust estate, violation of a fiduciary duty or the incapacity of the trustee to perform her duties.
Protecting and advancing the rights of a beneficiary of a family trust often requires the application of complicated laws. Therefore, a beneficiary is best served in most cases by engaging the services of an experienced trust attorney. Although these organizations cannot make specific recommendations, state and local bar associations are able to provide basic information about lawyers that practice in the area of trust law.