While California trustees hope for smooth sailing, they must navigate waters that can be choppy depending on the assets, trust instruments and personalities involved. As fiduciaries, trustees must honor the trustors’ intent as expressed in the trust instruments. Sometimes the language is unclear and the trustee needs instruction from a court as to how to proceed.
If they are not already working with an attorney, most trustees will (and should) seek guidance from counsel when uncertain about what to do. An attorney, generally at the expense of the trust, can help the trustee decide whether to file a petition for instructions, draft the necessary paperwork, serve it on parties entitled to notice, and then appear in the probate department of the court on behalf of the trustee. Some DIY-minded trustees, however, may be inclined to proceed without paying an attorney. Business & Professions Code section 6125 provides that a person can’t practice law unless he/she is an active member of the State Bar of California. When can a trustee represent himself or herself in court without engaging in unauthorized practice of law?
Earlier this month, the Court of Appeal held in Donkin v. Donkin, Jr. (2020) 47 Cal.App.5th 469 that individuals acting as trustees may represent themselves when seeking instructions from a California court. Yet, like an inexperienced sailor who attempts a solo ocean journey, a trustee who proceeds without counsel risks serious missteps such that self-representation may end up being far more costly in the long run.