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What are the duties of a fiduciary?

If you have a responsibility for someone's estate, whether that person is still alive or has passed away, you are likely a fiduciary. A fiduciary's specific title may be power of attorney, trustee, executor, conservator or agent.

As a fiduciary, you have certain legal responsibilities. Namely, a fiduciary is required to act in the best interests of estate and/or the principal and to do so in a competent manner. Fiduciaries must generally avoid self-dealing and conflicts of interest. There are exceptions for some powers of attorney. If a fiduciary breaches any of those responsibilities, he or she may face legal repercussions.

Many people assume fiduciary duties without realizing it when asked by a family member or appointed by a court to oversee someone's estate. It's essential to understand exactly what you're taking on when you accept such a responsibility and what you are required to do to fulfill that responsibility in accordance with California law.

If you're not a financial or investment expert, but are asked to make these decisions as a trustee or power of attorney, you should seek advice from financial professionals. If you don't and you make bad decisions, you could be held liable for them by family members and other beneficiaries whose financial interests were harmed by those decisions. If you've employed competent professionals, you likely can't be responsible for their decisions.

Besides seeking financial advice, if you are asked to be an agent, it's wise to consult with a California estate planning attorney. He or she can advise you in detail about your responsibilities and help you avoid legal entanglements with angry family members down the road.

Source: Lake County News, "Estate Planning: On being a fiduciary," Dennis Fordham, April 08, 2017

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