Professional fiduciaries are a relatively new profession in California. They have established their own organization, the Professional Fiduciaries Association of California (PFAC) to promote high standards of practice and continuing education for its members. They have also initiated legislation establishing regulation through the California Department of Consumer Affairs.
The San Jose Mercury News has recently run a series of articles criticizing professional fiducaries for excessive fees.
They portrayed some of the most prominent fiduciaries in Silicon Valley as greedy and unprincipalled.
Anyone who knows these individuals, as I do, knows this portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth. They have the highest moral character of any group that I know, and are some of my most valued friends and clients.
A fiduciary acts as an executor, administrator, trustee or conservator for an individual. That means they have to act in that person’s place to manage their finances and their personal care. It’s an awsome responsibility. The fiduciary is required to account for every dollar that they receive and every dollar that they pay from the client’s funds on behalf of the client. The fiduciary is required to place the interests of the client first, for which the fiduciary is compensated with fees. The hourly rates of the fees are comparable to those of other professionals, such as CPAs and attorneys.
A professional fiduciary must have a broad set of skills, including knowlege of probate law, asset management, accounting, personal communication, arbitration, mediation and relationships (hand holding). There are education, examination and experience requirements to have a state-issued license.
Most individuals have a family member or friend who can act as a fiduciary. Occasionally, there is no family member or friend who is willing or able to take on the task. Then a professional fiduciary can be hired. (Indigent individuals are handled by the county Public Guardian’s office.)
Since fiduciaries take care of the personal business of their clients, such as collecting their income and paying their bills, negotiating contracts, maintenance of the client’s property and more, it is a time-consuming task and can result in very significant fees.
For court-supervised accounts, the judge reviews the fees for reasonableness and approves or disapproves them for payment.
In some communities, ceilings have been adopted to limit the compensation of professional fiduciaries. The limitations have been so onerous that professional fiduciaries have decided to no longer offer their services for court-supervised accounts in some of these communities.
In response to the San Jose Mercury News series, the judges of the Santa Clara County Superior Court have promised to review whether new fee guidelines should be adopted. California Assemblyman Jim Beall has called for a statewide change to limit the fees for professional fiduciaries.
I believe that the judicial review of the fees is a sufficient check. In addition, the California Department of Consumer Affairs has authority to review abuses by professional fiduciaries and take disciplinary action. Government regulation of pricing of other goods and services hasn’t worked in the past. It is more expensive to do business and to live in some communities than others, and professionals should be able to recover those costs in their fees. Governmental review of pricing would require constant revision for inflation.
A state dictated cap on fees for professional fiduciaries also sets a dangerous precedent. The state could try to extend fee controls to virtually any service and profession. This would create a bureaucratic tangle. It goes against our country’s preference for a free marketplace.
I urge CPAs, EAs and attorneys to support professional fiduciaries in their blogs, social media and newsletters and to write representatives in the California legislature to not adopt fee caps for professional fiduciaries in California.