Individual Trustee


  • What is a Trustee? 
  • What is an Individual Trustee? 
  • Member and Trustee Requirements 
  • Duties of an Individual Trustee 
  • Multiple Co Trustees and Shared Responsibility 
  • Benefits of an Individual Trustee 
  • Drawbacks of an Individual Trustee 

What is a Trustee? 

A trustee refers to an individual or a corporation assigned the legal responsibility to hold and manage a trust’s assets. This role involves administering the trust strictly in accordance with the trust deed, which is the document that officially sets out the terms and conditions of the trust’s operation.  

The deed typically grants the trustee ownership of the trust’s assets with the explicit purpose of managing these for the advantage of the beneficiaries. It is also common for the deed to empower the trustee to distribute the trust’s assets or income to the beneficiaries. 

What is an Individual Trustee? 

An individual trustee refers to a natural person designated to oversee and administer a trust’s assets. This individual is granted legal title to the trust’s assets, meaning they hold the assets in their name for the benefit of the trust’s beneficiaries. Despite possibly other individuals having legal ownership or interest in these assets, the individual trustee is the one primarily responsible for the asset management and adherence to the trust’s obligations and duties. 

In scenarios where multiple co trustees are appointed, the administration of the trust’s assets, such as stocks and bonds, is a shared responsibility. Each co trustee is assigned specific duties and tasks, ensuring the effective management of the trust. This collaborative effort is designed to safeguard the interests of the beneficiaries, ensuring that they receive their entitled benefits from the trust in accordance with the terms set out in the trust deed or legal agreement. 

This role of an individual trustee is critical in the context of trust management, as it combines the legal authority to handle the trust’s assets with the obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries. The trustee’s actions are governed by both the trust agreement and relevant legal principles, emphasising the importance of integrity, diligence, and fairness in the execution of their duties. 

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Member and Trustee Requirements 

The operational framework of trusts, especially those managed by individual trustees, includes specific requirements for members and trustees that vary depending on the structure of the trust. These requirements are crucial for ensuring that the trust operates within legal and regulatory guidelines. 

Multi Member Funds

For Self Managed Super Funds (SMSFs) with multiple members, ranging from two to six, the interplay between members and trustees is tightly regulated. Each member of the SMSF must also serve as a trustee, creating a direct link between the beneficiaries of the trust and its management. This arrangement ensures that all members have a say in the administration of the trusts assets. However, it also introduces limitations, such as the prohibition of a member being an employee of another member unless they are related by family. Additionally, some state and territory laws restrict the number of trustees a trust can have, which may necessitate seeking professional advice or considering a corporate trustee model to comply with legal constraints. 

Single Member Funds

In trusts with a single member, the requirement stipulates the presence of two trustees, one of whom must be the fund member. This structure aims to ensure that even in single member funds, theres an element of oversight and shared responsibility. Similar to multi member funds, if one trustee is employed by another, they must be related by family, maintaining the personal connection within the trusts administration. 

Duties of an Individual Trustee 

The responsibilities of an individual trustee are multifaceted, primarily focusing on the ethical, diligent, and lawful management of the trusts assets for the benefit of its beneficiaries. These duties are foundational to the trustees role and are critical for the trusts successful operation and integrity. 

Acting in Good Faith

This involves that the individual trustee manage the trusts affairs with honesty and integrity. This means that all actions taken by the trustee should be done with transparency and without any intent to mislead or deceive the beneficiaries or other involved parties. This principle ensures that the trust is administered in a manner that is fair and trustworthy. 

Exercising Reasonable Care

Exercising Reasonable care demands that trustees manage the trust with a level of care and diligence that would be reasonably expected from someone in their position. This involves making prudent decisions regarding the trusts assets, such as investments, distributions, and other financial matters. The expectation is that trustees will make informed decisions that are in the best interest of the trust and its beneficiaries. 

Maintaining Accurate Records

Maintaining Accurate Records is essential for trustees to demonstrate transparency and accountability. This involves keeping detailed records of all transactions, distributions, and decisions made in relation to the trusts assets. Accurate record keeping ensures that the trusts operations are transparent, facilitating audits and reviews, and supporting the trusts compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. 

Avoiding Conflicts of Interest

This requires the individual trustees to manage the trust in a way that their personal interests do not interfere with their duties. Trustees must avoid situations where their personal gain could conflict with the interests of the trust or its beneficiaries. This duty is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the trust and ensuring that decisions are made solely in the interest of the beneficiaries. 

Fulfilling the Trust’s Terms

Fulfilling the trusts terms mean adhering strictly to the conditions and stipulations outlined in the trust deed. Trustees must ensure that the trust is administered exactly as intended by the settlor, respecting the terms under which the trust was established. This duty includes respecting the wishes of the settlor regarding asset distributions, beneficiary benefits, and other key aspects of the trusts operation. 

Not Benefitting from Their Position

Not benefitting from their position except as explicitly allowed by the trust’s terms or by law, trustees must not derive any personal benefit from their role in administering the trust. This ensures that the trustee’s actions are motivated by the best interests of the beneficiaries rather than personal gain. 

Collectively, these duties underscore the critical role of the trustee in ensuring that the trust operates effectively, ethically, and in alignment with both the settlor’s intentions and the beneficiaries’ best interests. The trustee’s adherence to these responsibilities is fundamental to the trust’s integrity and its ability to fulfil its purpose. 


Multiple Co Trustees and Shared Responsibility 

The administration of a trust can involve multiple co trustees, each sharing the responsibility of managing the trust’s assets. This scenario typically arises to ensure a balance of power and to incorporate diverse perspectives in the decision making process. When multiple individuals serve as trustees: 

  • Collaboration: Co trustees must work together in managing the trust’s affairs, from investment decisions to distributions to beneficiaries. This collaborative approach ensures that decisions are well considered and reflect a consensus among the trustees. 
  • Division of Tasks: Although co trustees share the overall responsibility for the trust, specific tasks may be allocated among them based on expertise or convenience. However, all co trustees remain collectively responsible for the trust’s administration. 
  • Decision Making: The trust deed often outlines how decisions are to be made among co trustees. In many cases, unanimity is required for major decisions, underscoring the importance of cooperation and mutual agreement. 
  • Conflict Resolution: Mechanisms for resolving disagreements among co trustees are crucial for the smooth operation of the trust. The trust deed may specify processes for dispute resolution, ensuring that conflicts do not impede the trust’s administration. 

The role of individual trustees, whether acting alone or as part of a group of co trustees, is fundamental to the effective management of a trust. They bear the responsibility of safeguarding the trust’s assets and ensuring that the trust achieves its purpose for the benefit of its beneficiaries. 

Benefits of an Individual Trustee 

The advantages of appointing an individual trustee in managing a trust stem primarily from the efficiency and simplicity associated with this setup. One of the most significant benefits is the reduction in both the initial setup and ongoing management expenses.  

Unlike corporate trustees, which require the formation and maintenance of a separate legal entity, individual trustees eliminate the need for these additional steps and the associated costs. 

Advantages include: 

  • Low Set up and Management Costs: The absence of the need to incorporate a company for the trust significantly reduces the financial burden associated with establishing and maintaining the trust structure. 
  • Relatively Simple Set up: The process for an individual to become a trustee is straightforward, involving merely the signing of the trust deed and a consent form to act in this capacity. This simplicity streamlines the entire setup process. 

Once appointed, the individual trustee is responsible for the diligent management of the trust’s assets, including making distributions to beneficiaries in line with the trust’s directives. This role involves the core functions and responsibilities of managing the trust, benefiting from the straightforward and cost effective approach of using an individual trustee. 

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Drawbacks of an Individual Trustee 

Opting for an individual trustee in managing a trust comes with its set of challenges, impacting both the trusts operation and the trustees personal financial health. These disadvantages primarily revolve around issues of capacity, liability, and succession. 

Incapacity of the Trustee

A significant risk associated with individual trustees is the potential for incapacity. Should a sole trustee become unable to manage the trust due to health issues or other incapacitating conditions, it complicates the trust’s management.  

Without clear legal provisions for automatic removal or replacement, confusion may arise among beneficiaries about who will assume control, potentially necessitating the appointment of a new trustee, which could be a complex process. 

Unlimited Liability

One of the more daunting aspects of being an individual trustee is the unlimited personal liability for the trusts debts and obligations. If the trust lacks sufficient funds to meet its liabilities, the trustee is expected to cover these costs out of their personal assets. This responsibility persists even after the trustee retires, unless another individual is appointed who agrees to take on these liabilities. 

Risk to Personal Assets

In cases of bankruptcy, an individual trustees personal financial troubles can spill over into the trusts management. Distinguishing between personal assets and those held in trust becomes challenging. This blurring of lines can lead to the trustees creditors targeting the trusts assets, undermining the trusts purpose and the beneficiaries interests. 

Complications Following the Death of a Trustee

The death of a sole individual trustee introduces significant administrative hurdles. Initially, all trust assets default to vesting with the Public Trustee, creating a vacuum in management until a successor is appointed.  

The process of appointing a new trustee involves executing a new trust deed and transferring all assets to the successor, a procedure that can be both complex and time consuming. 

These disadvantages highlight the vulnerabilities inherent in the individual trustee structure, particularly regarding the legal and financial challenges that can arise. These challenges can affect both the trusts smooth operation and the trustees personal circumstances. 

This article is general information only and does not provide advice to address your personal circumstances. To make an informed decision you should contact an appropriately qualified professional.