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GFO Pulse

Do You Need a Co-Trustee?

Insights and perspective from the GFO client community

Q & A with Jenn Semler

As part of our GFO Pulse Q & A series, Jane Flanagan, Director of Family Office Advisory, sat down with Jenn Semler, Managing Director of GFO’s East Region, to discuss the circumstances that trigger the need for a co-trustee and the benefits that accompany the decision to hire one.

Jane: Jenn, we know from our Benchmarking data that many of our GFO clients rely on family members to serve as trustees for their trusts, and we have been having lots of conversations around succession – in the family office, family business and with trustees. How often is succession a trigger for families to consider hiring a co-trustee?  

Jenn: The most common trigger we see is succession planning. Often the individual trustee is a family friend or trusted advisor who has been in the role a long time and is ready to scale back. Another common trigger is a generational transition in the family. When the senior generation starts stepping back, the next generation may want a trustee who is a contemporary. Finally, when the family office CEO is trustee and decides to move on, we often receive calls because the successor wants our help as co-trustee to manage the administrative tasks.

Jane: When does it make sense to hire a co-trustee, and what services can a co-trustee provide to save the family time?

Jenn: A co-trustee can provide peace of mind for any family member or individual serving as trustee, of course, but it’s especially helpful when there is a lot of complexity - in the nature of the asset allocation and type of investments or when a beneficiary has access to multiple trusts. Also, when there isn’t a long-standing, direct relationship between the beneficiaries and the individual trustee, there may be a greater risk of liability for that trustee. A co-trustee provides protection for all parties. A corporate co-trustee also offers stability in terms of the processes and recordkeeping, as well as consistent access. Some of the services that save the family and/or the family office time include:

  • Recordkeeping
  • Documentation of decisions
  • Coordination of communication between the beneficiary, trustee, advisors and family office
  • Structuring and facilitating meetings
  • Streamlining processes and providing best practices for decision-making.

Jane: Some families worry that having a corporate co-trustee means giving up control. How does decision-making happen with your clients who use Northern Trust as co-trustee?

Jenn: It depends on the trust document. Some trust documents require unanimous decisions by the co-trustees; others mandate a majority decision. Our practice wants to support the co-trustees and the beneficiaries by being flexible and finding options while staying true to the document. Because we serve so many families, we have lots of examples of ways to be creative. It is never our desire to dictate. We prefer to collaborate, and we consider each relationship with a long-term, multi-generational perspective.

Jane: What advice do you have for families who are asking the question, “Do we need a co-trustee?”

Jenn: If possible, my advice is to make the transition while the individual trustee is still serving. That person typically has a long history with the beneficiary and has a wealth of knowledge about the family, their decision-making and style of communication. It’s nice to have overlap so we can learn from that person and build a collaborative relationship. Also, having an individual trustee is just like having key person risk in a business. Hiring a co-trustee mitigates this risk and provides stability and continuity for the family.

Jane: Thank you, Jenn, for sharing your wisdom and experience. 

To Learn More, Contact:

David C. Albright, Head of Client Development – Americas, EMEA & APAC Regions, 312-557-1900 or

Jane Flanagan, Director of Family Office Advisory, 312-557-2025 or


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