Advisor's Corner

Advisors’ fiduciary obligations can get personal

With charitable bequests on the rise, and the possibility that more clients will be subject to Federal estate taxes in the future, many attorneys, accountants, and financial advisors are refreshing their recollections on the requirements of advising and administering taxable estates where one or more charitable organizations is a beneficiary.

Advisors’ fiduciary responsibilities to charitable beneficiaries are similar to fiduciary responsibilities to a decedent’s family members and other individual beneficiaries. Where a charity is a residuary beneficiary, for example, a fiduciary must pay careful attention to expenses and liabilities that impact the amount the charity ultimately receives. These liabilities and expenses include taxes, debts, fees, and costs incurred by the executor or trustee. A fiduciary should expect charity remainder beneficiaries to pay as much attention to the bottom line as family members. 

Not only must a fiduciary watch expenses to maximize the remainder beneficiaries’ interests, but a fiduciary must also be careful to avoid making distributions too early and therefore potentially becoming personally liable if estate obligations surface later. This was the unfortunate situation in Estate of Lee, T.C. Memo. 2021-92, where the fiduciary ultimately was found by the Tax Court to be personally liable for amounts due under a Federal tax lien.

As you assist your clients with estate planning that involves charitable giving, consider encouraging your client to talk with the charitable organization about the intended bequest so that expectations are well-documented, even if the bequest likely will not materialize until well into the future. Remember, too, that some charitable clients can benefit from establishing a fund at the Community Foundation to receive and administer their bequests to charitable causes. In that case our team at the Community Foundation can assist as you structure a bequest in the client’s estate plan.

Finally, and critically, ensure that the legal documents or beneficiary designation forms reflect the correct name of the charity. There are more than 1.5 million charitable organizations in the United States, and many have similar names. Arkansas Community Foundation maintains a directory of Arkansas Nonprofits on our website here. If you have any questions about which charity your client intends to benefit, ask both the client and the charity to confirm the exact name and location of the organization.