Serving as a trustee of a special needs trust can be a time-consuming and complicated job, which is why trustees are almost always entitled to compensation for their services. Payment of trustees usually takes one of two forms — either a flat fee based on a percentage of the trust’s assets or an hourly rate — and the method of compensation usually depends on who is serving as trustee.
Institutional trustees, such as banks and trust companies, almost always charge for their services using the percentage model, with one to one and one-half percent being the industry average. If the trust does not have a lot of assets, most institutional trustees will charge a minimum yearly fee instead of the set percentage. In most cases, the fee is based on the value of all of the trust assets under management, so large trusts tend to generate larger trustee fees. Of course, larger trusts also come with greater investment and reporting responsibilities that justify the higher payments.
Most individual trustees, including many professional trustees like lawyers, charge an hourly rate for their services. Like other services, this fee tends to fluctuate depending on where the trust is located, but trustees with greater expertise or people who provide care that goes beyond typical trustee duties may command higher rates. In most jurisdictions, trustee fees must be “reasonable,” but this standard varies widely.
It is incredibly important to clarify how a trustee is going to be compensated before finalizing the trust. In some cases, state law dictates how much a trustee may charge, and it is important for a trustee to understand this before signing on. (Of course, if the trustee doesn’t know local rules regarding trustee compensation, he probably doesn’t know a lot about trust law in general, which doesn’t bode well for his stewardship of the trust.) Donors of special needs trusts also have to be aware of how institutional trustees will charge for services that might be provided by other departments in their companies. For instance, an investment company may serve as trustee and charge a flat fee, but it might also steer the trust’s business through its brokerage department, where additional fees may apply.
Finally, if you are serving as a trustee of a special needs trust, keep in mind that the fee that you receive is taxable income that must be reported on your personal income tax return. After all, this is compensation for work being done as trustee, not a gift from the trust.