The “Executor” of a Trust: The Successor Trustee

A successor trustee of a living trust is similar to an executor of a will. Learn about the trustee’s job and how to leave property using a living trust.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by Jennie Lin , Attorney · Harvard Law School

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the role of executor of an estate. The executor is the person, named in the will, who's in charge of carrying out the wishes of the deceased person. The executor gathers assets, pays bills and taxes, and eventually distributes what's left to the people who inherit it.

You might not be as familiar with the person who fills a similar role when it comes to a trust. When someone uses a living trust rather than a will to leave property and assets to their heirs, the person who wraps up the trust is called a "successor trustee."

Leaving Property With Trusts

First, the basics. A trust is an arrangement in which one person, called the "trustee," controls property for the benefit of another person, called the "beneficiary." When you create a trust, you're called the "grantor" (or sometimes the "settlor" or "trustor").

Many people create revocable living trusts to leave property to their loved ones. Why not just use a will? Leaving property through a living trust avoids the time and expense of the probate process. That allows the beneficiaries to receive their inheritance sooner, and with more of it intact. Wills also become part of the public record (when they're filed with the probate court), while living trusts remain private.

Setting up Your Living Trust

When you set up a simple living trust, it's common to name yourself as the trustee. That way, you keep complete control over any property you transfer to the trust. And if you later decide to revoke the trust or name different beneficiaries during your lifetime, you're free to do so.

The trust document names the trustee, as well as the successor trustee who takes over when the trustee dies. It also lists the property you want to be transferred to the trust and the beneficiaries who should inherit the various assets. While it's enough to simply list some types of property, titled property (like real estate) requires an extra step: you must also separately retitle the property in the name of the trust.

The Job of the Successor Trustee

After the grantor dies, who serves as trustee? Your living trust document, like a will, names someone you choose to be the successor trustee. That person will take charge of the trust property after you die. Your successor trustee will do the following:

  • gather and safeguard trust property
  • read the terms of the trust document to determine who should inherit what, and
  • transfer trust property to the trust beneficiaries (your heirs).

Having Both a Will and a Living Trust

Most people who create a living trust for estate planning purposes also leave a will. That's because a will can do certain things a trust document can't, like name a guardian for young children and take care of any property not transferred into the trust (whether intentionally or not) during your lifetime.

It's common to name the same person as both successor trustee of the trust and executor of the will. If you name two different people to these jobs, they'll need to be able to work closely together. They'll have to coordinate their work on the legal and financial tasks that must be done after you die, including:

  • gathering property,
  • paying debts,
  • filing tax returns, and
  • distributing property to inheritors.

(If you're in the process of creating your estate plan, see our overview of available estate planning products. Or try WillMaker, which you can use to make a wide range of estate planning documents.)

How Long Does It Take to Settle a Trust?

A simple living trust intended to serve the function of a will (but avoid probate) shouldn't last long after your death. Your successor trustee can probably wrap up the job in a few weeks or months.

Some trusts, however, are designed to last for many months or years. For example, a trust for young children might last into their 30s. Or a trust intended to benefit a person with special needs might last for that person's lifetime. In such cases, your successor trustee might have a much bigger, ongoing job.

How long you expect your trust to last after your death will be a factor in choosing the person who'll serve as successor trustee. Most choose a family member or close friend, but some scenarios might make the expense of using a lawyer, bank, or trust management company worthwhile. (For tips on making this important decision, see Choosing a Successor Trustee.)

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