Parties to a Trust

Parties to a Trust

There are three fundamental parties to a trust: the grantor of the trust, the trustee, and the beneficiaries. The role and rights of each party is discussed in the following sections.

Grantor of the Trust

The person who creates a trust and transfers property to it is generally called the grantor. A grantor is sometimes called a settlor, maker, donor or trustor. In a living trust, the grantor retains the right to amend, alter or revoke the trust. In some circumstances, two or more people may decide to create a trust and are collectively referred to as grantors. Generally, both people must agree to amend, alter or revoke the trust.

Trustee and Successor Trustee

The person in charge of managing the trust, who is often the same person who created the trust, is called a trustee. In most states, any person or entity (such as banks, trust companies and some brokerage firms) who is capable of taking legal title to property, can be appointed trustee. Trustees have a legal duty (often called a fiduciary duty) to protect the assets of the trust and make certain that the purposes of the trust are followed.

The trustee is responsible for the management of the trust assets. The trustee has legal title of the trust assets and the power to buy, sell, borrow against or transfer the trust assets. The trust agreement sets forth the rights, duties and obligations of the trustee. In addition, state law imposes certain duties and obligations of trustees. The trustee need not be a resident of the state in which the trust is formed.

When a living trust is established, the grantor is usually also the trustee of the trust. The reason is simple—the grantor has managed the assets adequately before the assets are transferred to the trust and remains capable of managing the assets now that they are in the trust.

This brings to light a common misconception about living trusts. Many people believe that by transferring assets into the living trust, they lose control over the assets. That is absolutely not true. The grantor keeps full control over his or her property. As trustee of a living trust, the grantor can do everything he or she could do prior to creating the trust.

When the grantor is no longer able to serve as trustee, whether because of death, incapacity, or illness, the successor trustee named in the trust agreement takes over management of the living trust. The successor trustee has the same powers, rights, duties and responsibilities as the original trustee. The successor trustee steps into the shoes of the original trustee. Court approval is not required to permit the successor trustee to begin acting. While the successor trustee has all the same powers, rights, duties and responsibilities as the original trustee, the successor trustee has no authority to alter, amend or revoke the living trust. His or her role is limited to managing the assets and distributing the assets to the trust beneficiaries in accordance with the desires of the grantor as set forth in the living trust agreement.

In some circumstances, such as illness or age, a grantor may choose not to continue to act as trustee of his or her living trust. Although the grantor may not be considered incapacitated as defined in the living trust agreement or under state law, the grantor may relinquish his or her role as trustee by a written statement to that effect. In such a case, the grantor retains the right to resume his or her role as trustee when he or she feels fit and able to do so. In addition, the grantor retains the right to remove the successor trustee and replace the successor trustee, either with the next person named in trust to serve as trustee or with a person not named in the trust.

In the event of the grantor's incapacity (as defined in the living trust agreement), the successor trustee will assume the role of trustee without a court determination of incapacity. This maintains the privacy of the grantor and his or her living trust as a whole and permits the management of the grantor's assets without interruption or court supervision.

When married couples establish living trusts, they name each other as successor trustee of one another's trust. Often, one or more adult children are named as successor trustees in the event neither husband nor wife is serving as trustee. It is not uncommon for parents to name two or more of their children to serve jointly as successor trustees. Generally, unless the trust indicates otherwise, both children must agree in order to take any action on behalf of the trust. However, a well-drafted trust agreement will provide that if more than two trustees are serving, the decision of a majority of the trustees controls.

In addition, most trusts contain provisions authorizing trustees to delegate responsibility for certain actions to one trustee. This is common when children live in different parts of the country. One child may be authorized to manage the trust assets on a daily basis, subject to review by the other trustees on a quarterly, semi-annual or annual basis. Another child may be authorized to make distributions to beneficiaries within certain monetary limitations.


The person who benefits from the trust is a beneficiary. The beneficiary is entitled to receive the benefits of the income and principal of the trust. There are several categories of beneficiaries—the primary beneficiary, the contingent beneficiary (sometimes referred to as a secondary beneficiary), and the remainder beneficiary.

The primary beneficiaries are the persons who are first to receive the benefits of the trust assets. In a living trust, there is typically only one primary beneficiary—the grantor. After all, the assets in the trust are his or her assets. Commonly, the grantor's spouse is also a beneficiary of the living trust. If the granter has minor children or children who are dependent upon the granter for support, such as children who are disabled or in college, these children can also be named as beneficiaries of the trust.

Contingent beneficiaries are entitled to receive the benefits of the trust assets after the primary beneficiaries. Contingent beneficiaries are designated in the trust agreement to receive trust benefits in the future. In addition, contingent beneficiaries may, also receive benefits from the trust in the sole discretion of the trustee. That is, if the trustee believes that the contingent beneficiaries need money, the trustee can pay money to the contingent beneficiaries. The identity of the contingent beneficiaries and the scope of their future beneficial interest in the trust can be changed by the granter at any time until the living trust becomes irrevocable (i.e., at the death of the granter).

When the trust becomes irrevocable upon the death of the granter, the contingent beneficiaries become remainder beneficiaries. Their right to future benefits of the trust cannot be altered, amended or revoked. This does not mean, however, that they will necessarily receive trust assets. In the case of a married couple, after the death of the grantor, the surviving spouse is commonly the primary beneficiary of the living trust. The living trust often provides that all of the income and principal of the living trust can be used for the health, education, maintenance and support of the surviving spouse throughout his or her lifetime. It is possible that the trust assets could be exhausted for the benefit of the surviving spouse, leaving nothing for the children.

Example: Bill creates a living trust. His is married to Phyllis and has two children. During his lifetime, he is the primary beneficiary of the trust. After his death, Bill's wife, Phyllis, is the primary beneficiary of the trust. She is entitled to receive the income and principal of the trust during her lifetime. After Phyllis' death, the trust assets are divided into two equal shares—one for each child.

Beneficiaries are not restricted to family members or other individuals. Nonprofit institutions or charities can be named as beneficiaries of a trust. Beneficiaries may be given different rights in the trust property. Some beneficiaries may be income beneficiaries and may be entitled to receive only the income from the trust property. This may be interest from a savings account or bond, dividends from stock, rental income from real estate, and so on. Other beneficiaries may be principal beneficiaries and be entitled to receive the actual trust assets—for example, the money in the savings account, the stock, or rental real estate. Sometimes the beneficiary may be entitled to receive both income and principal.

The identities and rights of beneficiaries are established by the grantor when creating the living trust and can be changed during his or her lifetime.