Duty of a Trustee of a Trust in California
The Probate Code sets forth the duties of a trustee administering a trust and the measure of liability for breach of those duties.
Those duties include, among others, a duty of loyalty, requiring the trustee to administer the trust solely in the interest of the beneficiaries ( 16002, subd. (a)); a duty not to use trust property for the trustee's own profit or for any other purpose unconnected with the trust ( 16004, subd. (a)); and a duty to exercise reasonable care, skill, and prudence in administering the trust ( 16040, subd. (a), 16047), including a duty to diversify investments unless it is prudent not to do so ( 16048).
The former Probate Code was repealed in 1990, effective as of July 1, 1991. (Stats. 1990, ch. 79, 13, p. 463.) The current Probate Code became effective on that date. The Uniform Prudent Investor Act was adopted in 1995, adding sections 16045 to 16054 to the Probate Code. (Stats. 1995, ch. 63, 6, p. 170.) Many of the provisions of the current Probate Code are identical to those of the former Probate Code.
A trustee also has a fiduciary duty to act in good faith in the exercise of any discretionary powers conferred on the trustee by the trust instrument. ( 16081, subd. (a).) A trustee's violation of any duty owed to the beneficiaries is a breach of trust. ( 16400.)
Section 16440 sets forth the measure of a trustee's liability for a breach of trust:
"(a) If the trustee commits a breach of trust, the trustee is chargeable with any of the following that is appropriate under the circumstances:
"(1) Any loss or depreciation in value of the trust estate resulting from the breach of trust, with interest.
"(2) Any profit made by the trustee through the breach of trust, with interest.
"(3) Any profit that would have accrued to the trust estate if the loss of profit is the result of the breach of trust.
"(b) If the trustee has acted reasonably and in good faith under the circumstances as known to the trustee, the court, in its discretion, may excuse the trustee in whole or in part from liability under subdivision (a) if it would be equitable to do so."
Section 16440 does not preclude any other remedy for breach of trust that is available under statutory or common law. ( 16442.)
The trustee has a duty to administer the trust in accordance with the terms of the trust and his or her fiduciary obligations to trust beneficiaries. (Moeller v. Superior Court (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1124, 1131; Moxley v. Title Ins. & Trust Co. (1946) 27 Cal.2d 457, 463.)
Absent an ambiguity in the trust instrument and conflicting extrinsic evidence as to the meaning of the ambiguous terms, the interpretation of language in a trust is a question of law subject to de novo review. (Johnson v. Greenelsh (2009) 47 Cal.4th 598, 604; Burck v. George (1994) 7 Cal.4th 246, 254.)
In addition, although the trial court's factual findings are generally reviewed for substantial evidence, when, as here, the court's findings are based on undisputed facts, the question is a legal one subject to the appellate court's independent review. (Brach v. Omni Loan Co., Ltd. (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 1312, 1320; Laidlaw Waste Systems, Inc. v. Bay Cities Services, Inc. (1996) 43 Cal.App.4th 630, 635.)