Assume John Smith established the John Smith Revocable Trust during his life with himself as the Trustee of the Trust. There are Trust assets with a bank or other financial institution, the records of which list the trustee as John Smith. John Smith dies, and under the terms of the Trust agreement Mary Jones is the successor trustee of the Trust. How does Mary Jones as successor trustee gain custody and control of the Trust assets?
In this situation, sometimes a bank or financial institution will request a copy of the complete Trust agreement, along with a death certificate of the deceased trustee. However, one of the advantages of a revocable trust is confidentiality, namely never making the complete Trust agreement a matter of public record like you are required to do so with a Last Will and Testament in an estate proceeding. A copy of the complete Trust agreement will contain the dispositive provisions (who the beneficiaries are and what their shares are) and may contain other provisions such as the disinheritance of a child. This information is not the concern or business of the bank or financial institution. All the bank or financial institution should be concerned with is the successor trustee provisions of the Trust. The response to the bank is an Affidavit of Successor Trustee, sometimes referred to as a Certificate Of Incumbency. This is a document which Mary Jones as successor trustee would sign that states in part that: (1) John Smith established the John Smith Revocable Trust and the date of the Trust agreement; (2) John Smith died and his date of death; (3) Mary Jones is the successor trustee under the terms of the Trust agreement, and (4) Mary Jones accepts the trusteeship and agrees to serve as trustee. A death certificate of John Smith is attached to the Affidavit. The Affidavit can then be shown to the bank or financial institution as proof of the death of John Smith and further proof of Mary Jones being the successor trustee of the Trust. The bank or financial institution will make a copy of the Affidavit or scan it into its records, and remove the name of John Smith as trustee and list the name of Mary Jones as the trustee on its records of the Trust assets. The bank or financial institution will then do whatever the new trustee, Mary Jones, instructs them to do regarding the Trust assets.
What about real estate is owned by the Trust? A search of the public records regarding the real estate will list John Smith as the trustee. Accordingly, if Mary Jones as the successor trustee tries to distribute or sell the real estate or place a mortgage or deed of trust thereon, the title company and bank would check the public records and want John Smith as trustee to sign the relevant documents. This is impossible since he is deceased. In a case where the Trust owned real estate, you add to the Affidavit of Successor Trustee a statement that the Trust owned the real estate and set out certain pertinent information regarding the real estate including its legal description. You then record the Affidavit with the county recorder in which the real estate is located. Upon recording, the county officials (recorder, treasurer, assessor, etc.) will change the public records regarding the real estate by removing John Smith as trustee and listing Mary Jones as the trustee. Any search of the public records after the recording of the Affidavit will show that Mary Jones is the successor trustee and the one who has legal title to the real estate.
In summary, a successor trustee can obtain control and custody of the Trust assets when the prior trustee dies through an Affidavit of Successor without having to disclose all of the terms of the Trust agreement.