What Is a Fiduciary, Meaning and Fiduciary Examples

Anbarasan Appavu

 What Is a Fiduciary?

A fiduciary is a person or organization that acts on behalf of another or others, putting their clients' interests before their own, and who is obligated to maintain good faith and trust. Being a fiduciary requires a legal and moral obligation to act in the best interests of another.

A fiduciary may be responsible for the overall well-being of another (e.g., the legal guardian of a child), but the task typically involves finances, such as managing the assets of another individual or group of individuals. All financial managers, financial advisors, bankers, insurance agents, accountants, executors, board members, and corporate officers have fiduciary responsibility.

• A fiduciary is legally obligated to prioritize the client's interests over their own.

• Fiduciary duties exist in a variety of business relationships, including those between a trustee and a beneficiary, board members and shareholders of a corporation, and executors and legatees.

• An investment fiduciary is anyone who is legally responsible for managing another person's funds, such as a member of a charity's investment committee.

• Registered investment advisors and insurance agents owe clients a fiduciary duty.

• Broker-dealers are only required to meet the less stringent suitability standard, which does not require them to prioritize the client's interests over their own.

What Is a Fiduciary, Meaning and Fiduciary Examples

Understanding About Fiduciaries

The responsibilities and duties of a fiduciary are both ethical and legal. When one party accepts a fiduciary duty on behalf of another, they are required to act in the best interest of the principal, or the client or party whose assets they are managing. This is what is known as the "prudent person standard of care," which dates back to an 1830 court decision. This formulation of the prudent-person rule required a fiduciary to act with the beneficiaries' interests in mind first and foremost. It must be ensured that there is no conflict of interest between the fiduciary and the principal.

In many instances, no profit is to be made from the relationship unless explicit permission is granted at the outset. According to the English High Court ruling Keech vs. Sandford, fiduciaries in the United Kingdom are prohibited from profiting from their position (1726). If the principal consents, the fiduciary may retain whatever benefit they have received; these benefits may be monetary or more broadly defined as a "opportunity."

There are a variety of common business relationships in which fiduciary duties exist, including:

• Trustee and recipient (the most common type)

• Corporate directors and stockholders

• Executors and beneficiaries

• Protectors and wards

• Promoters and stock investors

• Attorneys and clients

• Investment firms and shareholders

• Insurance companies and agents, as well as policyholders

A person commits fiduciary negligence, which is a form of professional malpractice, when they fail to fulfill their fiduciary obligations and responsibilities.

Fiduciary Relationship Between the Trustee and Beneficiary

Both estate planning and trust administration involve a trustee and a beneficiary. The trustee of a trust or estate is the fiduciary, while the beneficiary is the principal. In accordance with a trustee/beneficiary duty, the fiduciary has legal ownership of the property or assets and the authority to manage trust assets. In estate law, the trustee is sometimes referred to as the executor.

As the beneficiary holds equitable title to the property, it should be noted that the trustee must make decisions in the beneficiary's best interest. The trustee-beneficiary relationship is a crucial aspect of comprehensive estate planning, and care should be taken when determining who will serve as trustee.

Politicians frequently establish blind trusts to avoid real or perceived scandals involving conflicts of interest. A blind trust is a relationship in which a trustee is responsible for the entire investment of a beneficiary's corpus (assets) without the beneficiary's knowledge. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest the corpus in accordance with the prudent person standard of conduct, even if the beneficiary is unaware.

Fiduciary Relationship Between the Board Members and Shareholders

Corporate directors have a similar fiduciary duty, as they can be considered trustees for stockholders or depositors, depending on whether they serve on the board of a corporation or a bank. Specific responsibilities include:

The Duty of Care

The duty of care applies to the manner in which the board makes decisions that affect the business's future. The board is required to investigate all potential decisions and their potential effects on the business. If the board is electing a new CEO, for instance, the decision should not be based solely on the board's knowledge or opinion of a single candidate; rather, the board must investigate all viable candidates to ensure the best person for the job is selected.

The Duty to Act in Good Faith

Even after conducting a reasonable investigation of all available options, the board is responsible for selecting the option that, in its opinion, best serves the business and its shareholders.

The Duty of Loyalty

The duty of loyalty requires the board to prioritize the company and its shareholders above all other causes, interests, and affiliations. Board members are prohibited from engaging in personal or professional transactions that could place their own self-interest or the self-interest of another person or business ahead of the company's.

If a member of a board of directors is found to have violated their fiduciary duty, the company or its shareholders can hold them liable in court.

Contrary to common belief, there is no legal requirement that a company maximize shareholder return.

More Examples of Fiduciaries

Fiduciary Relationship Between the Executor and Legatee

Additionally, fiduciary duties can apply to one-time or isolated transactions. For instance, a fiduciary deed is used to transfer property rights in a sale when a fiduciary must act as executor on behalf of the property owner. A fiduciary deed is useful when the property owner wishes to sell, but may be unable to do so due to illness, incompetence, or other circumstances and requires someone to act in their place.

A fiduciary is required by law to disclose the property's true condition to potential buyers, and they are prohibited from receiving any financial gain from the sale. A fiduciary deed is also useful when a deceased property owner's property is part of an estate that requires oversight or management.

Fiduciary Relationship Between the Guardian and Ward

A guardian/ward relationship transfers legal guardianship of a minor to an appointed adult. As the fiduciary, the guardian is responsible for ensuring that the minor child or ward receives appropriate care, which may include determining where the minor attends school, ensuring that they receive appropriate medical care, being disciplined in a reasonable manner, and maintaining their daily welfare.

When the natural guardian of a minor child is no longer able to care for the child, the state court appoints a guardian. In the majority of states, the guardian-ward relationship continues until the ward reaches the age of majority.

Fiduciary Relationship Between the Attorney and Client

The attorney-client relationship is arguably one of the strictest fiduciary relationships. The U.S. Supreme Court states that highest level of the trust and confidence must exist between both an attorney and client, and that an attorney, as a fiduciary, must act with complete fairness, loyalty, and fidelity in all client representations and dealings.

When a client breaches an attorney's fiduciary duties, the attorney is held accountable before the court in which the client is being represented.

Fiduciary Relationship the Between the Principal and Agent

Principal-agent relationships provide a more general illustration of fiduciary duty. As long as an individual, corporation, partnership, or government agency has the legal capacity to act as a principal or agent, that person or business can serve in either capacity. Under a principal/agent duty, an agent is legally obligated to act in the principal's best interests.

A group of shareholders as principals electing management or C-suite executives to act as agents is a typical example of a principal-agent relationship that entails fiduciary duty. Similarly, when selecting investment fund managers as agents to manage assets, investors act as principals.

Investment Fiduciary

While it may appear that an investment fiduciary is a financial professional (money manager, banker, etc.), the term actually refers to anyone who has the legal responsibility to manage another person's funds.

Consequently, if you have volunteered to serve on the investment committee of the board of a local charity or other organization, you have a fiduciary obligation. You have been placed in a position of trust, and betraying that trust may have repercussions. Additionally, hiring a financial or investment expert does not absolve committee members of all responsibilities. They are still responsible for selecting and monitoring the activities of the expert.

Positions with a Duty of Loyalty

Even across different types of professional relationships, the duties of a fiduciary remain consistent. Common occupations or positions requiring fiduciary responsibilities include:

Trustee of a Trust

You can transfer property, money, and other valuables to a beneficiary after your death by establishing a trust, a type of legal entity. The trustee, the person in charge of the trust, has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the trust and its assets for the benefit of the beneficiary. The trustee, for instance, is prohibited from using the trust's assets for personal gain, lest they face legal action.

Estate Executor

The person who manages your estate and handles your affairs after your death is your estate executor. In addition to being responsible for handling taxes and final financial matters, they also have a fiduciary duty to your heirs and next of kin. They must distribute the estate in accordance with your instructions and cannot favor themselves when distributing the assets.


If you hire an attorney to represent you, they owe you a fiduciary duty. They are required to disclose any conflicts of interest and to put your best interests first. This duty is of particular importance when working with a lawyer to draft your estate planning documents, such as your will, living revocable trusts, and powers of attorney. Fiduciary duty applies to all lawyers, from sole practitioners who represent individuals in personal injury lawsuits to corporate attorneys who represent enormous Fortune 500 corporations.

Director of Businesses

Those in charge of a company have a fiduciary duty to put the company's (and its shareholders') financial interests ahead of their own. Directors of corporations must scrutinize all company-related information and disclose any personal interests that could interfere with their ability to manage the company.

Real Estate Agents

In addition, real estate agents are typically regarded as fiduciaries, meaning they owe their clients full disclosure of any conflicts of interest or concerns affecting the property's value. As long as they inform both clients and have them sign an agreement, real estate agents can represent both the buyer and the seller in a transaction while maintaining their fiduciary duty.

The Suitability Rule

Typically, broker-dealers, who are frequently compensated on a commission basis, have only a suitability obligation to fulfill. This is defined as making recommendations that align with the customer's needs and preferences. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) enforces standards requiring broker-dealers to make appropriate recommendations to their clients.

Instead of placing their own interests below those of the client, the suitability standard only requires the broker-dealer to have a reasonable belief that any recommendations made are suitable for the client based on the client's financial needs, objectives, and individual circumstances. Importantly, a broker's primary obligation is to their employer, the broker-dealer they work for, and not to their clients.

Other descriptions of appropriateness include ensuring transaction costs are not excessive and their recommendations are not inappropriate for the client. Excessive trading, churning the account to generate more commissions, and frequently switching account assets to generate transaction income for the broker-dealer are examples of conduct that may violate suitability.

Also, brokers have a less stringent obligation to disclose potential conflicts of interest; an investment only needs to be suitable, not necessarily consistent with the individual investor's objectives and profile.

The standard of suitability can result in conflicts between a broker-dealer and a client. The most apparent conflict involves compensation. Under a fiduciary standard, it would be strictly prohibited for an investment adviser to purchase a mutual fund or other investment for a client if doing so would generate a higher fee or commission for the broker than an alternative that would cost the client less or generate a higher return for the client.


Under the suitability requirement, an investment may be purchased for a client if it is suitable for the client. This can also incentivize brokers to sell their own products over potentially less expensive alternatives.

Fiduciary Standard vs Suitability

Your investment adviser shares fiduciary responsibility with the investment committee if he or she is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA). A broker who works for a broker-dealer, on the other hand, may not. Some brokerage firms neither desire nor permit their brokers to act as fiduciaries.

In accordance with the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, fee-based investment advisers are obligated to uphold a fiduciary standard. They are subject to regulation by either the SEC or state securities regulators. The act is quite specific in its definition of a fiduciary, and it stipulates a duty of loyalty and care, which requires the adviser to prioritize the client's interests over their own.

For instance, the adviser is prohibited from purchasing securities for their own account before purchasing them for a client and from engaging in trades that could result in higher commissions for the adviser or their investment firm.

It also implies that the adviser must make every effort to ensure that investment advice is based on accurate and complete information, or, more generally, that the analysis is exhaustive and as precise as possible. When acting as a fiduciary, it is essential to avoid conflicts of interest, which requires an adviser to disclose any potential conflicts that could prevent him or her from putting their client's interests ahead of his or her own.

In addition, the adviser must place trades in accordance with the "best execution" standard, which requires them to trade securities with the optimal combination of low cost and efficient execution.

The Temporary Fiduciary Rule

While "suitability" was the norm for transactional accounts and brokerage accounts, the Department of Labor's proposed Fiduciary Rule would impose stricter requirements on brokers. Anyone with retirement funds under management who made recommendations or solicitations for an IRA or other tax-advantaged retirement accounts would be deemed a fiduciary required to adhere to this standard, as opposed to the suitability standard that was previously in effect.

The fiduciary rule's implementation has been lengthy and ambiguous. Originally proposed in 2010, it was originally scheduled to take effect between April 10, 2017 and January 1, 2018. After President Trump assumed office, the deadline was pushed back to June 9, 2017, with a transition period for certain exemptions lasting until January 1, 2018.

The implementation of the entire rule was consequently delayed until July 1, 2019. In June 2018, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the rule, preventing that from happening.

The Department of Labor released the Proposal 3.0 in June 2020, which reinstated that the investment advice fiduciary definition in effect since 1975.

It remains to be seen if it will be approved during the presidency of Joe Biden.

Risks of Being a Fiduciary

"Fiduciary risk" refers to the possibility of a trustee/agent who is not performing optimally in the beneficiary's best interests. This does not necessarily mean that the trustee is using the beneficiary's resources for their own gain; it could be the risk that the trustee is not achieving the best value for the beneficiary.

For instance, a situation in which a fund manager (agent) makes more trades than necessary for a client's portfolio is a source of fiduciary risk, as the fund manager is gradually eroding the client's gains by incurring higher transaction costs than necessary.

In contrast, "fiduciary abuse" or "fiduciary fraud" refers to a situation in which an individual or entity legally appointed to manage another party's assets uses their power in an unethical or illegal manner to financially benefit or otherwise serve their own self-interest.

Fiduciary Insurance

The company's directors, officers, employees, and other natural person trustees can be insured if they serve as fiduciaries of a qualified retirement plan.

The purpose of fiduciary liability insurance is to fill gaps in traditional coverage provided by employee benefits liability or directors and officers policies. It offers financial protection in the event that litigation is necessary due to alleged mismanagement of funds or investments, administrative errors or delays in transfers or distributions, a change or reduction in benefits, or erroneous advice regarding investment allocation within the plan.

Investment Fiduciary Guidelines

The non-profit Foundation for Fiduciary Studies was established to define the following prudent investment practices in response to the need for guidance among investment fiduciaries.

Step 1: Organize

The process begins with fiduciaries familiarizing themselves with the applicable laws and regulations. After identifying their governing rules, fiduciaries must define the roles and responsibilities of each participant in the process. Any service agreements with investment service providers should be in writing.

Step 2: Formalize

Creating the investment program's goals and objectives is the first step in formalizing the investment process. Fiduciaries should identify investment horizon, acceptable risk level, and anticipated return. Fiduciaries create a framework for evaluating investment options by identifying these factors.

Trustees must then select asset classes that will allow them to construct a diversified portfolio using a justifiable methodology. Modern portfolio theory (MPT) is one of the most widely accepted methods for creating investment portfolios that target a desired risk/return profile, so the majority of fiduciaries employ MPT to achieve this.

Finally, the fiduciary should formalize these steps by drafting an investment policy statement that provides the necessary implementation details for a particular investment strategy. As outlined in the first two steps, the trustee is now prepared to implement the investment program.

Step 3: Implement

In the implementation phase, specific investments or investment managers are chosen to meet the investment policy statement's requirements. A due diligence process must be designed to estimate the potential investments. The process of due diligence should establish criteria for evaluating and filtering the pool of potential investment options.

The implementation phase is typically carried out with the assistance of an investment advisor or adviser, as many fiduciaries lack the necessary skills and/or resources to carry it out on their own. When using an advisor or adviser to assist in the implementation phase, fiduciaries and advisors or advisers must communicate to ensure that a mutually agreed-upon due diligence process is used to select investments or managers.

Step 4: Monitor

The final step of a process can be the most time-consuming and also the most neglected. Some fiduciaries do not perceive the necessity of monitoring whether the first three steps were completed correctly. Each step of a fiduciary's duties carries the same potential for liability if it is neglected.

In order to properly monitor the investment process, fiduciaries must periodically review reports that benchmark the performance of their investments against the appropriate index and peer group, and determine whether the investment policy statement objectives are being met. Monitoring performance statistics alone is insufficient.

In addition to quantitative data, fiduciaries must monitor qualitative information, such as changes in the organizational structure of investment managers used in the portfolio. If an organization's investment decision-makers have departed or their level of authority has changed, investors must evaluate how this information may affect future performance.

In addition to performance reviews, trustees must examine the costs associated with the process's implementation. Not only are fiduciaries accountable for how funds are invested, but also for how funds are spent. Investment management fees have a direct impact on performance, and fiduciaries must ensure that they are fair and reasonable.

Fiduciary Regulations and Rules

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is responsible for regulating federal savings associations and their fiduciary activities in the United States. Multiple fiduciary duties can occasionally conflict with one another, which is a common issue for real estate agents and lawyers. At best, two opposing interests can be balanced; however, balancing interests is not the same as serving the client's best interest.

State governments issue fiduciary certifications, which can be revoked by the courts if a recipient is found to have neglected their responsibilities. A fiduciary must pass an exam that tests their knowledge of laws, practices, and security-related procedures, such as background checks and screening, in order to become certified. Despite the fact that board volunteers are not required to be certified, due diligence requires ensuring that professionals working in these areas have the appropriate certifications or licenses for the tasks being performed.

Fiduciary FAQs

What Is a Fiduciary?

In accordance with a legally and morally binding contract, a fiduciary must put the needs of their clients first. Importantly, fiduciaries must avoid conflicts of interest with their principals. Financial advisors, bankers, money managers, and insurance agents are some of the most common types of fiduciaries. Similarly, fiduciaries are present in a variety of other business relationships, including corporate board members and shareholders.

What Are the Three Shareholder Fiduciary Obligations?

Since corporate directors can be considered trustees for shareholders, they have the following three fiduciary responsibilities. The Duty of Care requires directors to make decisions in good faith and with reasonable care for the benefit of shareholders. Directors are prohibited by the Duty of Loyalty from placing other interests, causes, or entities ahead of those of the company and its shareholders. The final requirement of the Duty to Act in Good Faith is that directors choose the option that best serves the company and its stakeholders.

What Is Fiduciary Duty Example?

There are numerous examples of fiduciary obligation. Consider the trustee-beneficiary relationship, the most common type of fiduciary relationship. The trustee is a person or organization responsible for managing the assets of a third party, typically found in estates, pensions, and charitable organizations. A trustee has a fiduciary obligation to prioritize the trust's interests over their own.

Why Does Someone Require a Fiduciary?

Working with a fiduciary provides the assurance that a financial professional will always prioritize your interests over their own. This means that you do not need to be concerned about potential conflicts of interest, misplaced incentives, or aggressive sales tactics.

What differentiates a fiduciary from a financial advisor?

The term "fiduciary" refers to a relationship in which one party must act in the best interests of another. Attorneys are fiduciaries, as they must act in the best interest of their client. Real estate agents are also fiduciaries, as they must act in the best interest of the buyer or seller, not their own.

A fiduciary financial advisor makes investment decisions in your best interest, whereas a non-fiduciary advisor may recommend products for which they receive a commission or other form of compensation.

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