There are many terms in the field of estate planning that have become ubiquitous in the field, however, their meaning is often misunderstood. Trustee, beneficiary, executor, and fiduciary are some of these terms. The personal term “fiduciary” comes from the type of duty that a fiduciary owes to a beneficiary in a trust or financial management decision. This “fiduciary duty” is generally based upon a relationship or contract between a beneficiary and a fiduciary, or trustee.
The fiduciary duty is built upon a contractual relationship whereupon the fiduciary agrees to accept responsibility for the duty to manage the beneficiaries assets in the best interest of the beneficiary. An example of a fiduciary in the field of estate planning is the relationship between the trustee and the beneficiaries of a trust. A trustee is a person or entity (often a bank or law practice) that takes legal ownership of the trust assets and manages them in a way to benefit the beneficiaries and honors the trust. This management may include investing money, purchasing or selling assets, paying taxes, and managing legal or financial issues and disputes.
Fiduciary duties related to trusts and estate planning may involve specific obligations. The fiduciary has a duty of care to diligently inform themselves of the details of the trust assets in order to exercise sound judgment to protect the interests of the beneficiaries. Furthermore, fiduciaries owe beneficiaries a duty of loyalty, which includes removing themselves from decision-making that could pose a conflict of interest. Another duty of a fiduciary is to act legally and in good faith. A fiduciary should not break the law or behave unethically when handling the beneficiaries’ assets, especially if such dealings collaterally benefit the fiduciary. Finally, a fiduciary owes beneficiaries a duty of confidentiality. The fiduciary should not release the identity or any information about beneficiaries without a mandate or good cause.