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What is breach of fiduciary duty?

If you have agreed to become the executor of someone’s Florida estate or the trustee of his or her trust, you have assumed a fiduciary role whether or not you realize it. While you may have many fiduciary duties depending on the specific provisions of the will or trust in question, your most important duty is to always manage and disburse the estate or trust assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries or heirs. They are the people for whom you serve as fiduciary.

As a fiduciary, you are not required to perform your duties perfectly at all times. Fiduciaries are human beings, and humans make occasional mistakes. No one will blame you or sue you if you make an inadvertent arithmetic error or if one of your investments of estate or trust assets fails to live up to its expectations. The beneficiaries or heirs can only sue you if you deliberately do or fail to do something that is not in their best interests. That is the classic definition of breach of fiduciary duty.

Common fiduciary breaches

Bearing in mind that a fiduciary breach must be a deliberate act on your part, common examples of breaching your duty include the following:

  • Deliberately giving the heirs or beneficiaries insufficient or false information
  • Acting for your own personal benefit and/or gain rather than for the heirs’ or beneficiaries’ benefit and/or gain
  • Deliberately doing something not in the heirs’ or beneficiaries’ best interests

Elements of proof

Winning a breach of fiduciary duty lawsuit requires the plaintiff(s) to prove all four of the following:

  1. That the trust named you as trustee or that the will named you as executor
  2. That the trust or will specified your fiduciary duties
  3. That you breached such duties by acting in a way contrary to the trust’s or will’s provisions
  4. That because of your breach, the trust and/or its beneficiaries or the estate and/or its heirs suffered economic damages

If the beneficiaries or heirs prove these things, the court could hold you personally responsible for paying restitution to the estate/heirs or the trust/beneficiaries for the full amount of their financial loss. In addition, should the court determine that your fiduciary breach amounted to malice or fraud, it could also hold you personally responsible for paying punitive damages above and beyond the actual damages sustained.

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