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Differences of a Fiduciary vs. Trustee


A fiduciary is an individual or organization required to act legally and ethically in the best interests of their clients. This broad term encompasses various roles, including financial advisors, attorneys and conservators. Each are required to prioritize the financial well-being of clients over their own profits. In addition to these fiduciaries, a trustee has similar obligations, but specifically when managing a trust. Trustees hold and administer assets for the trust’s beneficiaries, adhering strictly to the terms set forth in the trust document. 

If you need help finding financial advice, connect with a fiduciary financial advisor today. 

What Is a Fiduciary?

Fiduciary duty encompasses a range of responsibilities, including loyalty, care and full disclosure, which require that the fiduciary to prioritize the beneficiary’s needs above their own.

At its core, a fiduciary relationship involves trust and confidence. The fiduciary must act with the utmost integrity, when reducing conflicts of interest and making decisions that benefit the beneficiary. This obligation is important in financial advisory services, where clients depend on advisors to manage their wealth prudently and transparently.

Types of Fiduciaries

Below are seven common roles where you might find a fiduciary:

  • Financial advisors: When financial advisors operate as fiduciaries, they are required to provide advice and make investment decisions that align with the client’s best interests. Unlike advisors who are not fiduciaries and may recommend products for which they receive commissions, fiduciary advisors are obligated to prioritize the client’s financial well-being.
  • Attorneys: Attorneys provide legal representation and advice to clients. They must protect their legal rights and act in their best interests.
  • Trustees: Trustees manage assets held in a trust on behalf of beneficiaries. This role is particularly significant in estate planning, where trustees must handle the estate’s assets responsibly and distribute them according to the trust’s terms and the beneficiary’s best interests.
  • Executors: An executor administers a deceased person’s estate, paying their debts and distributing assets according to the will. As fiduciaries, executors must act impartially and faithfully, honoring the decedent’s wishes while managing the estate’s assets with care.
  • Guardians and conservators: Guardians and conservators are responsible for the personal and financial affairs of individuals who are unable to care for themselves due to age, disability or incapacity. Their fiduciary duty involves making decisions that best support the ward’s health, welfare and financial security.
  • Corporate officers and directors: In a corporate setting, officers and directors owe fiduciary duties to the company’s shareholders. They must act in the corporation’s best interest, making decisions that enhance shareholder value and avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Real estate agents: Real estate agents assist clients in buying, selling or renting properties. These transactions must be conducted fairly and in the client’s best interests.

What Is Fiduciary Duty?

A woman meets with her financial advisor, who's required to act in her best interests.

When considering the services of a financial advisor, attorney or any other who acts as a fiduciary, it’s crucial to understand the concept of fiduciary duty. At its core, fiduciary duty is about trust and responsibility. Here’s a look at six components of this multifaceted obligation: 

Duty of care: The duty of care requires fiduciaries to act with the competence and diligence that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in similar circumstances. This involves thorough and careful analysis before making any financial decisions on behalf of the client. 

Duty of loyalty: The duty of loyalty mandates that fiduciaries prioritize the interests of their clients above their own. This means reducing conflicts of interest and disclosing any potential conflicts that may arise.

Duty of good faith: Acting in good faith means fiduciaries must operate with honesty and fairness. They should provide accurate and complete information to their clients, enabling them to make informed decisions. 

Duty of prudence: The duty of prudence requires fiduciaries to manage assets responsibly. This involves making decisions that reflect careful planning and consideration of the client’s financial goals and risk tolerance. 

Duty to disclose: Fiduciaries are legally obligated to have full transparency about fees, conflicts of interest and other critical information.

Duty of confidentiality: The duty of confidentiality requires fiduciaries to protect their clients’ private information. This means that any personal, financial or business details shared with a fiduciary must be kept secure and not disclosed without explicit consent.

What Is a Trustee?

A trust is a legal entity that holds one party’s assets on behalf of beneficiaries. The person who creates the trust is known as the grantor or trustor, while the party who’s assigned to manage the trust and distribute its assets, is known as a trustee.

Trusts are versatile tools used for various purposes, such as estate planning, protecting assets, and providing financial security for beneficiaries. They can hold a range of assets, including real estate, investments, and cash.

The trustee is the individual or institution appointed to manage the trust’s assets according to the grantor’s wishes. They are also responsible for making decisions in the best interest of the beneficiaries, and ensuring that the trust complies with legal and financial regulations.

Who Can Serve as a Trustee?

A trustee must adhere to the terms of the trust document.

Trustees can be appointed in several ways. Often, the grantor selects a trustee when creating the trust. This could be a trusted friend or family member, a professional such as a lawyer or accountant, or a corporate trustee like a bank or trust company. The choice depends on the complexity of the trust and the skills needed to manage it effectively.

In some cases, multiple trustees may be appointed to share responsibilities. This can provide a balance of skills and perspectives, although it can also complicate decision-making. In other cases, the grantor may select a successor trustee to step in and manage the trust in the event the original trustee dies or can no longer fulfill their duties.

What Is the Role of a Trustee?

The fiduciary duty of a trustee involves acting in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Trustees must therefore avoid conflicts of interest and maintain transparency in the administration of the trust. Here’s a closer look at four responsibilities:

Asset Management

One of the trustee’s foremost duties is managing the assets within the trust. This involves making prudent investment decisions to preserve or grow the trust’s value. Trustees must be well-versed in financial management, often seeking advice from financial advisors to help manage assets wisely. They need to balance risk and reward to safeguard the beneficiaries’ interests, aligning their investment strategy with the trust’s terms and goals.

Distribution of Assets

Trustees are responsible for the timely and accurate distribution of trust assets to the beneficiaries as stipulated in the trust documents. This can range from regular disbursements for living expenses to lump-sum distributions upon the occurrence of specific events, such as the beneficiary reaching a certain age. Trustees must follow the trust’s instructions to avoid any legal complications or disputes among beneficiaries.

Adherence to Trust Documents

A trustee must adhere strictly to the terms set forth in the trust documents. So they need to be thoroughly familiar with these documents, interpreting and executing the instructions according to the trustor’s wishes. The trustee may also have to address any ambiguities or changes in circumstances, often consulting legal professionals to keep the trust compliant with legal requirements.

Administrative Duties

Administrative responsibilities form another significant aspect of a trustee’s role. These include maintaining detailed records of all transactions, preparing tax returns and documenting all actions. Trustees must also communicate regularly with beneficiaries, providing updates on the trust’s status and addressing any concerns they may have.

Bottom Line

A fiduciary is a person or entity who’s legally and ethically required to act in the best interests of another party. Financial advisors, attorneys, real estate agents, guardians and others can all serve as fiduciaries. Trustees, who are appointed to manage and distribute a trust’s assets to beneficiaries, also have a fiduciary duty.

Tips for Finding a Financial Advisor

  • If you’re looking to hire a financial advisor, be sure to work with one who’s a fiduciary. You can ask them directly or check to see if their registered with the SEC, which requires firms to act in clients’ best interests.
  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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