Estate Planning 101

Understanding Trustee Fees in California

Understanding Trustee fees is a critical factor in setting up and operating a Trust in California. In this article, we'll look at the typical fee ranges for different types of trusts, when trustees are paid, and whether trustee fees are considered taxable.
October 6, 2023

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The intricacies of estate planning often extend into various elements, one of which is the structure of Trustee fees. This becomes particularly relevant in California where the trustee, whether a corporate entity, a professional, or an individual, deals with certain financial implications. The trustee fees in California can vary, influenced by factors such as the type and complexity of the trust, the responsibilities involved, and the agreement between the grantor and the trustee. This blog aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of trustee fees in California, to assist you in navigating this critical aspect of estate planning with more confidence.

Professional and Non-Professional Trustees: Understanding the Difference

In California, trustees largely fall into two categories: Professional and Non-Professional trustees. Understanding these categories is pivotal as they play a significant role in determining the trustee fees.

Professional trustees are generally corporations or individuals with specialized expertise in law, finance, or estate planning. Given their professional skills and experience, they are often chosen to manage trusts. The fees for professional trustees are typically calculated as a percentage of the trust's assets or as a flat fee, depending on the complexity of the trust and the level of responsibility involved.

Non-Professional trustees, on the other hand, are often chosen based on their close relationship with the grantor and the beneficiaries. These trustees may not have the same level of expertise as professional trustees. However, they are typically compensated for their time, with the fee structure varying considerably. They may receive an hourly wage, a flat fee, or a small percentage of the trust's assets, based on the agreement with the grantor.

How are Trustees Paid?

Trustee fees in California can be structured in several ways, largely depending on the type of trustee, the complexity of the trust, and the agreement established when the trust was created.

Professional trustees often charge a flat fee or a percentage of the trust's assets. While flat fees provide predictability, they may be higher than an hourly rate if the trust is relatively straightforward. For larger, more complex trusts, a percentage-based fee is typically charged. The percentage usually ranges from 0.5% to 2% of the trust's assets per year. This fee structure encourages the careful management of the trust, as the trustee's compensation is tied to the performance of the trust.

Non-professional trustees, such as family members or close friends, usually operate with a more flexible fee structure. They could be paid an hourly rate, a flat fee, or a small percentage of the trust's assets. The specific arrangement is usually agreed upon by the grantor when creating the trust.

The type of trust also plays a significant role in the trustee compensation. Some trusts may require less time and expertise to manage, therefore incurring lower fees. Conversely, a complex trust with various assets and tax implications may demand higher fees due to the increased responsibility and skills required.

Trustee Fees in California

In California, the guidelines for trustee fees are established by the California Probate Code, which provides a schedule of fees based on the value of the estate. However, for trusts, this statutory fee schedule is not mandatory, and the actual trustee fees can be subject to the terms of the trust or the agreement between the parties.

Professional trustees typically charge a flat fee or a percentage of the trust assets, which can range from 0.5% to 2% annually. However, the actual rates can vary depending on the specifics of the trust and the firm involved. Some firms may charge additional fees for special services or for handling complex aspects of the trust.

Non-professional trustees, particularly if they are family members or close friends, may choose not to take a fee. If they do, it could be an hourly rate, which might range from $25 to $100 per hour, a flat fee, or a small percentage of the trust's assets. Again, the exact arrangement depends on the agreement with the grantor and the terms of the trust.

Trustee Fees by Type of Trust

The complexity and specific duties of a trust can significantly influence the associated trustee fees. Here's a look at how trustee fees might vary among some common types of trusts.

  • Revocable Living Trusts: These are quite common and relatively straightforward trusts, primarily aimed at avoiding probate. For these trusts, a family member (non-professional trustee) may serve without compensation. If a professional trustee is chosen, they typically charge a flat yearly fee or a modest percentage of the trust's assets.
  • Irrevocable Trusts: These trusts are often more complex and require more time and expertise to manage. The trustee fees for irrevocable trusts are typically a percentage of the trust assets, though the exact amount can vary depending on the intricacies of the trust.
  • Charitable Trusts: Established for the benefit of a charitable organization, these trusts may come with unique responsibilities for the trustee, resulting in higher fees usually calculated as a percentage of the trust assets.
  • Special Needs Trusts: These trusts are set up for a beneficiary who is physically or mentally disabled. The specialized management required for these trusts often results in higher trustee fees, usually a percentage of the trust's assets.

When are Trustees Paid?

The timing and frequency of trustee payment are usually dictated by the terms set out in the trust agreement. Generally, trustee fees are paid out of the trust's assets.

Professional trustees usually receive their fees annually, often divided and disbursed quarterly. Non-professional trustees who charge an hourly rate might invoice the trust monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on the time commitment and tasks performed.

When the trustee is responsible for the final distribution of assets and the closing of the trust, they typically receive their final payment once all other expenses and taxes have been paid.

Are Trustee Fees Taxable?

Yes, the IRS considers trustee fees as taxable income. This applies to both professional and non-professional trustees. Trustees are required to report the fees they receive as income on their personal tax returns. If the trustee fee is the only income from self-employment, it might not be subject to self-employment tax. However, they should still be reported as income on their tax returns.

For professional trustees, these fees are typically reported as business income. Trustee fees are also generally considered an administrative expense, which can reduce the taxable income of the trust itself.

Given the complexity of tax laws, it's always advisable to consult with a tax professional or an estate planning attorney to ensure accurate reporting and compliance with all pertinent tax regulations.