If someone asks you to act as their Estate Trustee, or you learn to your surprise that you are named as an Estate Trustee after the person’s passing, there are a number of things that you should consider before accepting such a responsibility. Given the significant duties involved in such a role, it is important to be aware of the potential for personal liability.
An Estate Trustee’s Legal Duties
An Estate Trustee is a fiduciary and, as such, s/he owes a duty to exercise the care, diligence and skill that a person of ordinary prudence would exercise in dealing with the property of the Deceased.
Furthermore, an Estate Trustee owes a “duty of loyalty”, which has been described as the duty to act honestly and in good faith, and to use powers solely for the purposes for which they were granted (see Oosterhoff on Trusts: Text, Commentary and Materials, 8th ed.). The “duty of loyalty” means that:
(a) An Estate Trustee must exercise powers and perform duties solely in the interest of the Estate.
(b) An Estate Trustee must not knowingly permit a situation to arise where:
(i) The Estate Trustee’s personal interest conflicts in any way with the exercise of powers or performance of duties; or
(ii) The Estate Trustee derives a personal benefit or a benefit to a third party, except as far as the law or the Will expressly permit.
Additional legal duties of an Estate Trustee are:
- The “prudent investor” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee properly invests the Estate assets;
- The “even-hand” rule which ensures that the Estate Trustee acts impartially among all the beneficiaries;
- The “duty of transparency” which ensures that the Estate Trustee provides information to the beneficiaries; and
- The “duty to account”.
Some Practical Considerations
From a practical stand point it is also prudent to consider the overall complexity of the Estate and what type and quantity of work will be expected from you in your role as an Estate Trustee. Certainly, some Estate Trustees can be compensated for the work they perform; however, there is a limit to what one may claim and it largely depends on the circumstances.
There are certain tasks that an Estate Trustee may want to delegate to third parties; however, there is a limit as to what type of work may be delegated and what is considered reasonable.
You should consider whether the Will properly sets out the powers as well as the responsibilities of the Estate Trustee which will aid you in the future, should any of your decisions be challenged. Another useful consideration is whether there are any third parties, or specifically, any beneficiaries who may be difficult to deal with in your role as an Estate Trustee, or may want to challenge your authority in the future.
In making the decision whether or not to act as an Estate Trustee, it may also be a good idea to speak to a lawyer regarding whether taking on this role may present an unacceptable legal risk for you in the future.
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Canada’s model legislation regarding digital assets, the Uniform Access to Digital Assets by Fiduciaries Act (the “Canadian Model Act”), was introduced in August 2016, and borrows heavily from its American predecessor, the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (the “American Model Act”).
The Canadian Model Act defines a “digital asset” as “a record that is created, recorded, transmitted or stored in digital or other intangible form by electronic, magnetic or optical means or by any other similar means.” As with the definition appearing within the American Model Act, this definition does not include title to an underlying asset, such as securities as digital assets. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not define the terms “information” or “record.”
In the Canadian Model Act, the term “fiduciary” is also defined similarly as in the American Model Act, restricting the application of both pieces of model legislation to four kinds of fiduciary: personal representatives, guardians, attorneys appointed under a Power of Attorney for Property, and trustees appointed to hold a digital asset in trust.
One challenge that both pieces of model legislation attempt to address is the delicate balance between the competing rights to access and privacy. The American Model Act is somewhat longer in this regard, as it addresses provisions of American privacy legislation to which there is no equivalent in Canada. Canadian law does not treat fiduciary access to digital assets as a “disclosure” of personal information. Accordingly, under Canadian law, the impact on privacy legislation by fiduciary access to digital assets is relatively limited.
The Canadian Model Act provides a more robust right of access to fiduciaries. Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian Model Act does not authorize custodians of digital assets to choose the fiduciary’s level of access to the digital asset. Section 3 of the Canadian Model Act states that a fiduciary’s right of access is subject instead to the terms of the instrument appointing the fiduciary, being the Power of Attorney for Property, Last Will and Testament, or Court Order.
Unlike the American Model Act, the Canadian equivalent has a “last-in-time” priority system. The most recent instruction concerning the fiduciary’s right to access a digital asset takes priority over any earlier instrument. For example, an account holder with a pre-existing Last Will and Testament, who chooses to appoint a Facebook legacy contact is restricting their executor’s right to access their Facebook account after death pursuant to the Will.
Despite their differences, both pieces of model legislation serve the same purpose of facilitating access by attorneys for or guardians of property and estate trustees to digital assets and information held by individuals who are incapable or deceased and represent steps in the right direction in terms of updating estate and incapacity law to reflect the prevalence of digital assets in the modern world.
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Beginning April 10, 2017, the United States Department of Labour will implement what is being referred to as the “Fiduciary Rule“. The Fiduciary Rule will require American investment advisors to satisfy a higher standard of care when providing investment recommendations, putting clients’ interests above their own and providing complete disclosure with respect to fees and potential conflicts of interest.
The standard of fiduciary, premised on a role of trust and the duty to act in utmost good faith, is applied to guardians of property and the person, attorneys of property and personal care for incapable grantors, estate trustees, and other types of trustees. While commentary regarding the Fiduciary Rule recognizes that investment advisors should be (and often are) already guided by the best interests of investor clients, some who earn commission on the sale of certain products may be in a position of conflict. The Fiduciary Rule will prevent advisors from making certain recommendations if they are not in the client’s best interests. The new standard of care required of American investment advisors may to some extent fall short of that applied in respect of other traditional fiduciaries, and is subject to a number of exceptions.
Absent the implementation of the Fiduciary Rule or equivalent requirements in other jurisdictions, investment advisors are not typically treated as fiduciaries. Contracts may specifically state that advisors are not acting in a fiduciary role and that they do not absorb risk on their clients’ behalf related to investment advice that is followed. Typically, if something goes wrong and an investor wishes to pursue a claim against his or her advisor, the onus is on the investor to prove the fiduciary nature of the relationship. If the investor is able to prove that a fiduciary obligation existed (factors include the length of the relationship, the sophistication of the client, and the demonstrated reliance on the advice of the advisor), the advisor must then show that he or she has discharged the duty in good faith and with full disclosure.
Although the Fiduciary Rule is scheduled to come into effect on April 10 of this year, it is anticipated that the new Trump administration may delay the applicability of the Fiduciary Rule for the time being. Although there have been discussions with respect to raising the standard of care of investment advisors in Canada, where extensive regulations already apply, an equivalent to the U.S. Fiduciary Rule has not yet been introduced.
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