Personal Finance: Ask the Experts

Get advice on money matters from The Bee's Claudia Buck and a panel of local experts

September 1, 2013
When is a trustee required to give heirs notice of a will or trust's existence?

Q: My aunt passed away without any children. My mother was the her last surviving sibling. I have an older cousin who 'took charge' and said that he was trustee of her estate. He also said that my aunt wanted no services of any kind. Since my aunt's passing, my mother has passed away as well. This leaves me wondering about the status of the estate. Does my cousin have a legal obligation to disclose the contents of my aunt's will? At what point must documents be filed with the county (nothing has been filed yet)? If she left a "living trust," must there be a disclosure of the contents to my mother and her heirs? At what point do we give up our rights to any inheritance?

Robert, Sacramento

A: First, let me clarify that there is a difference between a "living trust" and a "will" and you seem uncertain about whether your aunt had one or the other. Different rules apply to both, so I will answer your questions as to the law in general. As always, because there may be specific facts that affect your particular situation, you are encouraged to seek legal advice from counsel of your choosing.

If your aunt had a trust and your cousin is named as the trustee, he is required by law to give notice to all of your aunt's heirs of the trust's existence. Your mother, as a surviving sibling of your aunt, would be considered an heir of your aunt under California law, since your aunt died having no children and, presumably, her parents (your grandparents) both predeceased her. If your mother and your aunt had other predeceased siblings who had children -- your cousins -- those persons also would be your aunt's heirs. In general, a trustee is required to give this notice within 60 days of your aunt's death.

If your aunt had a will, California law requires that the person having custody of the will must deliver the original to the county clerk of the county in which your aunt died within 30 days after having knowledge of your aunt's death. If your aunt had an estate and a probate proceeding is necessary to transfer the assets of the estate in accordance with the will, your mother, as an heir of your aunt, would be entitled to receive notice of any probate proceeding.

In order to determine what rights you may have to force your cousin to provide you with a copy of the will or trust, and when you need to assert those rights, I would recommend that you seek the advice of an attorney who specializes in estate planning and probate at your earliest opportunity.

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Meet Our Financial Experts

Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is The Sacramento Bee's personal finance columnist. Read all her columns here. Contact her at

Terri Carpenter

Terri Carpenter offers advice on job hunting, retraining and career counseling. Carpenter works at Sacramento Works Inc., the career and job training arm of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). With 15 years in the field, she has hands-on experience with everyone from first-time job seekers to career professionals seeking advice after a layoff or looking for a mid-career change. Ask her a question.

Carlena Tapella

Carlena Tapella is a partner in the law firm of Webb & Tapella Law Corp. in Sacramento. The firm specializes in estate planning and probate, such as estates, trusts, conservatorships and litigation. She is a past president of the Sacramento County Bar Association's Estate Planning & Probate Section. Ask her a question.

Kimberly Foss

Kimberly Foss, certified financial planner, is the founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville. With nearly 30 years in the financial industry, her clients include women in transition, small business owners, retirees and "pre-retirees." Ask her a question.

Jesse Weller

Gregory Burke, a CPA and tax expert with John Waddell & Co. in Sacramento since 1984, worked as an IRS tax auditor for six years. He’s a past chairman of the California Society of CPAs. Ask him a question.

Daniel Tahara

Daniel Tahara takes your questions about California taxes. Tahara, a spokesman for the state Franchise Tax Board, has 10 years of experience as a tax auditor. Ask him a question.

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