Enforcing a Trust

By Thomas King

A trust is a legal relationship in which a trustee holds property for beneficiaries, who are the individuals benefiting from the trust. The trustee must abide by the terms of the trust to manage property and distribute it to the beneficiaries. The person who creates a trust is known as the settlor, or grantor. The settlor can also serve as the trustee, naming a successor trustee who will take over for him following his death. Alternatively, the settlor can name someone else to serve as the trustee at the time he creates the trust. A trustee owes certain duties to the beneficiaries -- and the beneficiaries have a right to enforce the terms of the trust and hold the trustee in breach of his duties if he is performs any wrongful acts or omissions that affect their interests.


To enforce a trust, a party must have standing. Only the settlor and beneficiaries have standing to enforce a trust. There is an exception for charitable trusts. Because charitable trusts are created for the benefit of the public, the state attorney general also has standing to enforce a charitable trust. Further, for a beneficiary of a charitable trust to have standing, the beneficiary must be specifically identified in the trust. Potential future beneficiaries generally do not have standing.

Fiduciary Duties

A trustee owes several fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries. Fiduciary duties are essentially legal duties, or legal obligations. The most common fiduciary duties include a duty to manage the trust according to the settlor's instructions, duty of good faith and duty of loyalty. The duty of loyalty requires that the trustee act in the best interest of the trust and beneficiaries. For example, profiting from the trust at the expense of the beneficiaries would be a breach of the trustee's duty of loyalty. The duty of good faith is an umbrella term encompassing a host of responsibilities. In general, it means that the trustee must act with due care in managing the trust. For example, investing trust property unwisely might result in a breach of the trustee's duty of good faith.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More

Court Procedure

To enforce a trust, a person with standing must petition the appropriate court. A petition is a formal written application asking the court to take a particular action. The rules of procedure governing this specific process vary by jurisdiction. However, keep in mind that all jurisdictions have a statute of limitations to bring a claim. For example, in California, a beneficiary may not commence a proceeding against a trustee more than three years after discovering the act or omission giving rise to the claim.


In general, the court will award a remedy as it sees fit. Common remedies include relief to compel an accounting of the trust by the trustee, an order requiring the trustee to give assurances to ensure the proper distribution of the trust assets, an order compelling distribution of all or some of the trust assets available for distribution, money damages for a trustee's breach of his fiduciary duties, or an order terminating the authority of the trustee.

Divorce is never easy, but we can help. Learn More
What if You Violated an Irrevocable Trust?


Related articles

Irrevocable Family Trust Laws in Massachusetts

An irrevocable family trust can be effective estate planning tool. When an individual establishes this type of trust, he appoints an individual, known as a trustee, to oversee the administration of the trust. In Massachusetts, specific rules apply to the trustee. State law also sets forth the limited circumstances for the modification or termination of the trust. Understanding the state laws that apply to irrevocable family trusts will help ensure the proper distribution of property held in the trust.

Can a Trustee Be Removed for Not Giving a Accounting?

A trust involves the holding of property for the benefit of another. The relationship is legal in nature; the person appointed to oversee the trust, known as the trustee, has certain responsibilities to the beneficiaries, or those entitled to receive under the terms of the trust. Part of this duty is to provide regular accounting and keep the beneficiaries reasonably informed.

The Difference Between a Grantor & a Beneficiary

Grantor is the legal term for a person who creates a trust, and beneficiaries are people named by the grantor to benefit from the trust by receiving the trust's property. The legal terms "grantor," "settlor," and "creator" have the same meaning and can be used interchangeably. A grantor and beneficiary have different roles in a trust, but either may serve as trustee of the trust. Although the grantor establishes a trust and may have the authority to change it, beneficiaries also have authority to amend or revoke the trust and take legal action to protect the trust in certain circumstances.

Get Divorced Online

Related articles

What Is Diversion of Property From a Trust?

Diversion of trust property is a legal term used to describe the misapplication or misuse of trust property. Not only ...

Responsibilities of a Trustee to a Beneficiary in Maryland

Although a trustee is entitled to exercise certain powers over the assets of the trust he administers, he is also ...

How to Register a Beneficiary Trust in Florida

Trusts, a commonly used estate planning tool, can help avoid a time-consuming legal process after death. In Florida, ...

Does a Trust Beneficiary Have Standing in a Suit to Determine a Trust Property?

All trusts have trustees and beneficiaries. A trustee's job is to manage, hold and distribute trust assets in favor of ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED