Updated on April 18th, 2023

Fiduciary Responsibility Definition

A fiduciary responsibility refers to an organization that must put another person’s best interest first. A fiduciary duty is the highest standard of care in law. For example, a lawyer owes a fiduciary responsibility to the clients, a doctor owes a fiduciary duty to a patient, and a trustee owes a fiduciary duty to a beneficiary.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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An example of fiduciary responsibility (aka fiduciary duty) in business is between corporate director to the company because the director owes a duty of undivided loyalty, full disclosure of conflicts of interest, and reasonable care.

Paul is the owner of a company called Avid Robotics, an artificial intelligence and robotics company based in Los Angeles. Due to the nature of the industry, Paul’s company has a lot of intellectual property that they jealously guard from their competitors. If a rival were to discover their technological secrets, it could ruin Paul’s business by destroying its competitive advantage. One of the company’s board members, Jared, has recently been caught trading top-secret information to a rival in exchange for a lot of money. Paul is furious, naturally, because Jared is violating his fiduciary responsibility to the company. As a board member and fiduciary, Jared was supposed to put the best interests of the company before his own, which he failed to do. Paul must now replace Jared with someone more loyal, and when he finds a few good candidates, he wants to ensure they understand what fiduciary responsibility means.

What is a fiduciary?

A fiduciary is defined as an individual or an organization that acts on behalf of another individual or group, and that puts the best interests of their clients before their own. A fiduciary also has a duty to be trustworthy and to act in good faith. An individual who chooses to act as a fiduciary is therefore bound both legally and ethically to act in the other individual or group’s best interest, with no thought to their personal benefit.

A fiduciary may be tasked with the responsibility for the general welfare of another, such as being the legal guardian of a child. However, this task usually involves matters of finance, such as the management of assets belonging to another individual or group of individuals. Those with fiduciary responsibility thus include the following: financial advisors, money managers, bankers, accountants, insurance agents, executors, board members, and corporate officers.

Some primary facts to keep in mind include the following:

  • A fiduciary is by law bound to place their client’s best interests before their own.
  • Fiduciary duties come up in a variety of business relationships, which include trustee and beneficiary, corporate board members and shareholders, and executors and legatees.
  • An investment fiduciary is any individual who has a legal responsibility to manage another individual or group’s money. This might include a member of a charity’s investment committee.
  • Registered investment advisors have a fiduciary duty to their clients, as do insurance agents.
  • Broker-dealers are only expected to meet the less strict suitability standard. This does not mandate placing the client’s interests ahead of one’s own.

What are a fiduciary’s responsibilities and duties?

The responsibilities and duties of a fiduciary are both legal and ethical in nature. When a party accepts the task of being another party’s fiduciary, and this accepting that duty, they are required to act in the best interests of the principal (the client or party whose assets they are controlling). This duty is referred to as a “prudent person standard of care.” In fact, this standard originally comes from a court ruling dating from 1830. According to the prudent-person rule, a person acting as a fiduciary was required to act above all in the interest of the beneficiaries – that is, with their needs foremost in mind. Struct care needs to be taken to make sure that no conflict of interest comes up between the principal and their fiduciary, which would risk a breach of duty.

In many instances, there is no profit to be made from the fiduciary relationship unless specific consent is granted at the formation of the relationship. In the United Kingdom, for instance, fiduciaries are not allowed to profit from their role. This was decided by an English High Court ruling, Keech vs. Sandford, all the way back in 1726. If the principal offers their consent, then the fiduciary may keep whatever benefit they may have received from the relationship. These benefits may be monetary in nature or may be more generally described as opportunities.

Fiduciary duties come up in a broad variety of typical business relationship, which include the following:

  • Trustee and beneficiary (most common)
  • Corporate board members and shareholders
  • Executors and legatees
  • Guardians and wards
  • Promoters and stock subscribers
  • Lawyers and clients
  • Investment corporations and investors
  • Insurance companies/agents and policyholders

Fiduciary negligence is a kind of professional malpractice in which an individual does not honor their fiduciary responsibilities and obligations.

What is the fiduciary relationship between trustee and beneficiary?

Estate arrangements and implemented trusts require both a trustee and a beneficiary. The individual who is named as a trust or estate trustee qualifies as the fiduciary, while the beneficiary is the principal. According to a trustee/beneficiary duty, the fiduciary possesses legal ownership of the property or assets. They therefore have the authority required to manage assets held in the name of the trust. Under estate law, a trustee might also be referred to as the estate’s executor.

It should be noted that the trustee is required to make decisions that are in the best interest of the beneficiary. This is because the beneficiary holds equal title to the property. The relationship of trustee and beneficiary plays an important role in estate planning, which means that care should be out into determining who is best suited to be trustee.

Politicians are known to set up blind trusts as a way of avoiding real or perceived conflict-of-interest scandals. A blind trust may be defined as a relationship in which a trustee has authority over the investment of a beneficiary’s corpus, or assets, without the beneficiary knowing how the assets are being invested. However, while the beneficiary is unaware of proceedings, the trustee still has a fiduciary duty to invest the assets in line with the prudent person standard of conduct.

What is the fiduciary relationship between board members and shareholders?

Corporate directors also have a similar form of fiduciary duty. This is because they may be considered trustees for stockholders if they are on the board of a corporation. They may also be trustees of depositors if they serve as a bank director. The specific duties of this kind of fiduciary relationship include the following:

  • Duty of Care

Duty of care refers to the way a board makes decisions that impact the future of a company. The board has the responsibility to completely investigate all potential decisions and how they may affect the business. If the board is in the process of voting for a new chief executive officer (CEO), then the decision must not be made entirely based on the board’s knowledge or view of a particular candidate. Rather, it is the board’s duty to look carefully at all valid candidates to make sure that the best individual is selected for the job.

  • Duty to Act in Good Faith

Once the board carefully reviews all the options laid before it, it still has the duty to select the choice that it believes is in the best interests of the business and its shareholders.

  • Duty of Loyalty

With the duty of loyalty, the board must not put any other causes, affiliations, or interests above its loyalty to the business and the company’s investors. Board members are required to remove themselves from personal or professional dealings that may put their own self-interest before that of another individual or company above that of their own business.

If a member of a board of directors breaches their fiduciary duty to their company, then they may be held liable, or legally responsible, in a court of law by the business itself or by its shareholders.

It should be noted that there is no legal requirement that a corporation must maximize shareholder return.

What Are Other Examples of Fiduciaries?

The Fiduciary Relationship of Executor and Legatee

The fiduciary relationship can also apply to one-time, specific transactions. For instance, a fiduciary deed is used to transfer property rights in a sale. This is when a fiduciary needs to act as the executor of the sale in place of the property owner. A fiduciary deed is a good idea when a property owner wants to sell but for whatever reason is unable to manage their affairs. This incapacity may be due to illness, incompetence, etc. In any case, they require another party to act in their place.

By law, a fiduciary needs to reveal to the potential buyer the true condition of the property that is for sale. Also, a fiduciary cannot receive any financial benefit from the sale of the property. A fiduciary deed is also helpful when the property owner has died and their property is part of an estate that requires management or oversight.

The Fiduciary Relationship of Guardian and Ward

With a guardian/ward relationship, the legal guardianship of a minor is granted to a chosen adult. The guardian, as fiduciary, has the duty of making sure the minor child or ward has the necessary care, which may include deciding where the individual goes to school, what medical care they should receive, that they are disciplined in an appropriate manner, and that they are cared for in the proper manner.

A state court is in charge of appointing a guardian if the natural guardian of a minor child is no longer able to care for the child. A guardian/ward relationship remains in place until the child reaches the age of majority.

The Fiduciary Relationship of Attorney and Client

Of all fiduciary relationships, probably the strictest in nature is the relationship between attorney and client. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest level of confidence and trust must exist between a client and their attorney. As fiduciary, an attorney is required to act with loyalty, fairness, and fidelity when dealing with and representing their clients.

A client may hold their attorney liable for breach of fiduciary duty. They are accountable to the court in which the client is represented at the time of the alleged breach.

The Fiduciary Relationship of Principal and Agent

One of the more basic examples of fiduciary duty is the relationship between a principal and agent. Any individual, partnership, corporation, or government agency may act as a principal or agent so long as the party has the legal capacity. According to a principal/agent duty, an agent is legally chosen to act in place of the principal with their best interests in mind.

Consider a common example of this relationship: a group of shareholders acting as principals elect management or C-suite individuals to act as agents. Investors also act as principals when they choose investment fund managers to manage assets as agents.

Investment Fiduciary

It would be understandable to think that an investment fiduciary might be a financial professional, such as a banker, money manager, or otherwise. However, an investment fiduciary is really any individual who takes on the legal responsibility of managing another party’s money.

This means that if an individual decided to be on the investment committee of their local charity’s board, he or she has a fiduciary responsibility to that organization. The individual has been put in a position of trust, meaning there will be consequences if he or she betrays that trust. It should be noted that hiring an investment or financial professional does not absolve committee members of their responsibilities. The members still have a duty to carefully choose and review the activities of the selected professional.

What Is the Suitability Rule?

Broker-dealers are usually paid via commission, and they generally are only expected to fulfill a suitability duty. This duty may be defined as making recommendations that are in line with the needs and preferences of their customer. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) is in charge of regulating broker-dealers, setting standards that require the brokers to make proper recommendations to their clients.

Rather than needing to place their personal interests after those of the client, the suitability standard specifies that the broker-dealer needs to believe that any recommendations are proper for the client when it comes to the client’s financial goals, needs, and unique situation. It is also important to note how loyalty is defined in this context: a broker’s primary duty is to their employer, the broker-dealer that is their boss, and not to their clients.

Suitability may also be defined as ensuring that transaction costs are not over-the-top and that recommendations are not unsuitable for the client in question. Excessive trading, using the account to generate more commissions, and constantly switching the account’s assets to generate transaction income all qualify as examples that potentially violate suitability.

Brokers do not have the strict requirement to reveal potential conflicts of interest. Rather, an investment must simply be considered suitable. The investment does not have to be in line with the individual investor’s goals and profile.

The suitability standard is responsible for causing conflicts between broker-dealers and their clients. The main conflict involved compensation. According to fiduciary standard, an investment advisor would be prevented from buying a mutual fund or other investment for a client. This is because the investment would earn the broker a higher commission or fee than a selection that would cost the client less money, or produce more for the client.

It is important to note that according to the suitability requirement, an investment may be purchased for a client so long as it is considered suitable for them. This can motivate brokers to sell their own products instead of competing for potentially cheaper products.

What is the difference between suitability and fiduciary standard?

If an individual’s investment advisor is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA), then the advisor shares fiduciary responsibility with the committee. Conversely, a broker works for a broker-dealer, and they may not share fiduciary responsibility. Brokerage firms may not allow their brokers to act as fiduciaries, though this depends on the particular firm.

Investment advisors are typically fee-based. They are bound to the fiduciary standard established as part of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) can regulate these advisors. The act has a specific definition of what a fiduciary is. It emphasizes duty of loyalty and care, which means that the advisor needs to put their client’s interests ahead of their own.

For instance, the advisor is not permitted to buy securities for their account before buying them for a client. Also, the advisor is not allowed to make trades that may result in higher commissions for the advisor or the investment firm for which they work.

This also implies that the advisor is required to do their utmost to ensure advice regarding investment is granted using accurate and complete knowledge. Essentially, their analysis needs to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible. When acting as a fiduciary, it is essential to avoid conflicts of interest. This means that an advisor is expected to detail any potential conflicts in order to put their client’s interests ahead of their own.

In addition, an advisor is required to put trades under a standard of “best execution.” This means that the advisor tries to trade securities with an ideal combination of efficient execution and low cost.

What is the short-lived fiduciary rule?

The term “suitability” was originally the standard for transaction or brokerage accounts. However, the U.S. Department of Labor Fiduciary Rule made things stricter for brokers. This meant that any individual with retirement money under management, who offered recommendations for an individual retirement account (IRA) or other tax-advantaged account, would thereafter be thought of as a fiduciary. They were required to stick to that standard rather than to the suitability standard.

The fiduciary rule, originally proposed in 2010, has long been implemented, though not very clearly. It was scheduled to go into effect between April 2017 and January 2018. After former President trump took office, it was thereafter postponed to June 2017, which included a transitional period extending through January 2018.

Afterward, the implementation of the rule in its entirety was delayed to July 2019. However, the rule was abandoned following a June 2018 ruling by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court.

In June 2020, the Department of Labor released a new proposal known as Proposal 3.0. This “reinstated the investment advice fiduciary definition in effect since 1975 accompanied by new interpretations that extended its reach in the rollover setting, and proposed a new exemption for conflicted investment advice and principal transactions.”

As yet, it is unknown whether the proposal will be approved under President Biden’s administration.

What are the risks of being a fiduciary?

Fiduciary risk may be defined as the potential for a trustee or agent to not perform in the beneficiary’s best interests. This does not mean, necessarily, that the trustee is taking advantage of the beneficiary’s resources for their own benefit. Instead, the risk would be that the trustee is not earning the best value for the beneficiary.

For instance, a source of fiduciary risk might be when a fund manager, as an agent, makes more trades than is necessary for a client’s portfolio. This is because the fund manager is incurring higher transaction costs than are necessary, which in turn reduces the client’s gains.

Fiduciary abuse or fiduciary fraud may be described as a situation in which an individual or party is legally selected to manage another party’s assets and uses their power unethically or illegally so that they may benefit financially.

What Is Fiduciary Insurance?

Individuals who function as fiduciaries of a qualified retirement plan may be insured by a business. This may include the company’s directors, employees, officers, and other trustees. Fiduciary liability insurance is supposed to bridge the gaps that exist in traditional coverage that is provided through employee benefits liability or via directors’ or officers’ policies. It offers financial protection if litigation becomes necessary due to problems related to mismanagement of funds or investments, administrative errors or delays in distributions or transfers, an alteration in benefits, or incorrect advice regarding investment allocation.

What Are Investment Fiduciary Guidelines?

The nonprofit organization Foundation for Fiduciary Studies was created to establish the following prudent practices for investment:

  • Organization

The process starts with fiduciaries teaching themselves the rules and laws that apply to their specific situations. After a fiduciary has identified his or her governing rules, they will then need to understand the roles and duties of all parties that are involved in the process. Service agreements should be in writing if investment service providers are used.

  • Formalization

Establishing the investment program’s objectives and goals is known as formalizing the investment process. A fiduciary should identify factors including investment horizon, the acceptable level of risk, as well as expected return. A fiduciary, by understanding these factors, may create a structure by which they may evaluate investment options.

A fiduciary will then need to choose the appropriate class of assets that will permit them to establish a diversified portfolio through defensible methodology. The majority of fiduciaries do so by utilizing modern portfolio theory (MPT). This is because MPT is one of the most accepted methods for setting up investment portfolios that focus on a preferred risk/return profile.

The fiduciary should formalize these steps by setting up an investment policy statement that supplies the necessary detail to implement a particular investment strategy. At this point the fiduciary is prepared to go forward with the implementation of the investment program as described above.

  • Implementation

This phase occurs when particular investments or investment managers are chosen to fulfill the requirements laid out in the investment policy statement. To evaluate potential investments, there must be a due diligence process. This due diligence process needs to identify criteria that are used to evaluate and sift through the group of potential options for investment.

The implementation phase is typically conducted with the help of an investment advisor. This is because many fiduciaries do not have the requisite skills and/or resources that are needed to do this step of the process. When an advisor is brought in to help in this phase, fiduciaries and advisors need to communicate to make sure that a due diligence process is being followed in the choosing of managers or investments.

  • Monitoring

The final step of the process can take the most time and be the most ignored aspect of the process. A fiduciary may not understand the importance of monitoring if they did the first three steps properly. A fiduciary should not neglect any of his or her duties. This is because he or she could be held equally liable for negligence in every step.

To correctly monitor the investment process, a fiduciary needs to now and again review reports that compare their investments’ performance against the relevant index and peer group. They must then assess whether the investment policy statement goals are being met. It is not enough to merely monitor performance statistics.

A fiduciary also needs to keep track of qualitative data, including changes in the organization of investment managers being used in the portfolio. If the individuals making investment decisions have departed, or if their level of power has altered, then investors need to think about how this information might impact future performance.

Along with performance reviews, a fiduciary needs to go over expenses brought on during the implementation of the process. A fiduciary is responsible for how funds are invested, but also for how funds are spent. Investment fees directly impact performance. Therefore, a fiduciary needs to make sure that fees paid in exchange for investment management are reasonable and appropriate.

Fiduciary Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Fiduciary?

A fiduciary is an individual that is charged with putting the best interests of their clients first via a legally and ethically binding agreement. It is important to know that fiduciaries are supposed to prevent conflicts of interest between the fiduciary and the principal. The most common forms of fiduciaries include bankers, financial advisors, money managers, and insurance agents. Also, fiduciaries are involved in other business relationships, such as corporate board members and shareholders.

What Are the Three Fiduciary Duties to Shareholders?

Because corporate directors may be treated as fiduciaries for shareholders, they have the following three responsibilities:

  • Duty of care means that directors are bound to make decisions in good faith for shareholders in an acceptably prudent fashion.
  • Duty of loyalty means that directors cannot put other causes, interests, or entities ahead of the interest of the company and its shareholders.
  • Duty to act in good faith means that directors must choose the best option for the company and its shareholders.

What Is an Example of Fiduciary Duty?

There are a number of examples of fiduciary duty. One of these is the relationship between trustee and beneficiary, which is the most common form of fiduciary relationship. The trustee takes the form of an organization or individual who is responsible for managing the assets of a third party. This is often the case with estates, charities, and pensions. According to their fiduciary duty, a trustee must put the best interests of the trust before all others, including their own personal interests.

Why Does an Individual Need a Fiduciary?

By working with a fiduciary, an individual can rest assured that this professional will always put the individual’s interests first, even ahead of their own. An individual in this kind of relationship does not have to fear conflicts of interest, aggressive sales strategies, or unwelcome incentives.

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