Who’s Charging What for Trust Services?

October 8, 2019

Trust fees are headed higher according to our pricing survey completed this week. Some firms work strictly from a rate card. Others decide what your client will pay when the business is placed on the table. Either way, it’s good to know what the “market value” of trust services.

There’s still a fair amount of mystery surrounding exactly what’s baked into each of those basis points. “It’s never as simple as just lining up the fees,” says Mike Flinn, a Phoenix-based trust consultant. “Once you start drilling down into the basis points, it becomes pretty clear that different firms really do different things,” he added. To find out where the sizzle hits the steak for various types of trust company, The Trust Advisor conducted a survey below of what they’re charging.

Who’s Charging What for Trust Services
Trust Company State Trust account minimum Minimum annual fee First $1 million Next $2 to $3 million $3 to $5 million Above $5 million
Advisory Trust DE $500,000 $3,000 0.50% 0.40% 0.30% 0.25%
Bryn Mawr Trust DE $1 million $6,000 0.60% * 0.45% Neg.
The New Hampshire Trust Company NH None $3,000 0.90% 0.55% 0.45% 0.35%
Northern Trust IL & DE $5 million $20,000 0.40% 0.40% 0.40% 0.20%
Reliance Trust GA None $3,000 0.60% 0.35% 0.35% 0.35%
Santa Fe Trust NM None $4,000 0.75% 0.75% 0.50% 0.35%
Saturna Trust Co. NV None $1,000 0.50% 0.50% 0.50% 0.40%
Summit Trust Co. NV $100 $100 1.00% 0.80% 0.70% Neg.
Wealth Advisors Trust Company SD None $4,000 0.50% 0.50% 0.42% 0.35%
Wilmington Trust DE $1 million $8,000 0.60% 0.40% 0.40% 0.25%
* Breakpoint is $2 million.

One thing we discovered: if you just want a no-frills account, Flinn adds, it’s probably going to cost at least $3,000 a year. “That’s really the minimum anyone can comfortably charge.”

“Maybe $2,500,” he conceded. “But at that level, it’s going to be very difficult to stay in the business.”

While $3,000 happens to be what Advisory Trust charges on the low end, it does seem to be an informal sweet spot within the trust industry. Other companies that start at that level include New Hampshire Trust and Georgia-based Reliance Trust.

There are companies that charge small accounts less (Nevada’s Summit Trust will go as low as $100 a year), but plenty start their fees at $4,000 and up. It all depends on the size of account they’re courting and what makes economic sense, Christopher Holtby, president of Wealth Advisors Trust Company, told me.

“Hitting the sweet spot is part art, part science,” he explains. “There are very specific things that every trust has to do, and everything else is extra.”

Good scale for big fish

Northern Trust doesn’t publish its fee scale, but president Dan Lindley was kind enough to give The Trust Advisor a peek.

Although the $20,000 minimum fee looks steep at first, it makes a lot more sense when you consider that Northern Trust isn’t really interested in personal directed trust accounts with less than $5 million in assets. For a client with that kind of wealth, the $20,000 translates into at most 40 basis points a year—pretty low by industry standards.

(Really big clients get institutional-strength discounts. Once a Northern Trust account grows beyond $30 million, the company will only charge 5 basis points: $500 a year per $1 million.)

The upshot is that by concentrating on high-end clients, a white-glove firm like Northern Trust can build a lot of sizzle into its steak, even though the cost per dollar of AUM is comparable to what bare-bones vendors charge.

“Northern Trust in Delaware charges a reasonable, competitive fee and in return provides comprehensive services to our directed trust clients backed by more than 120 years of experience as a fiduciary,” Lindley told me.

Other high-end trust companies argue that at this level, it’s pointless to advertise your fees because high-net-worth clients and their advisors are happy to pay for the service.

Some vendors refused to participate in the survey because they either work on an a la carte basis (Peak Trust) or figure out what to charge once they see the trust paperwork (Commonwealth Trust). As Peak Trust founder Douglas Blattmachr told me, it’s pointless to advertise how much a generic offering would cost when the fact is that at this level, one size fits none.

“It really does depend on what the client wants us to provide,” he says.

When asked to present a benchmark, he estimated that a relatively bare-bones Peak Trust account might charge 50 basis points a year or an annual minimum of $3,500. That’s about where vanilla Commonwealth trusts start, Jim McMackin, who runs the company’s marketing, told me.

Splitting smaller pies

Naturally, it’s going to cost extra if the trust company also manages the underlying assets. But there are a lot of vendors out there that are happy to offload the investment responsibilities and knock a bit off their fees in return.

Companies like Wealth Advisors Trust, Advisory Trust and Santa Fe Trust, cater exclusively to investment advisors looking for a place to refer their clients who need to open a trust.

Account minimums tend to be relatively low—Wealth Advisors Trust and Santa Fe Trust can theoretically start a trust with as little as $1—but expenses can be a little higher to cover the fixed cost of administering these tiny trusts.

For example, Santa Fe Trust accepts very small accounts, but according to its published fee scale it will still charge them at least $4,000 a year. At an annual fee of 75 basis points, this suggests that a trust really needs to have more than around $533,000 in it to “earn out” that $4,000 minimum fee.

By comparison, Wealth Advisors Trust’s scale “earns out” at a slightly higher level ($800,000 in the account), which indicates that its platform is built to support a somewhat more affluent clientele. Others on our list (Advisory Trust, Reliance, Saturna, New Hampshire Trust) justify their minimums at lower levels.

Whatever happens, says Kathy Roberts, the CEO of Santa Fe Trust, small accounts shouldn’t be loss leaders.

“We don’t take a trust that isn’t going to be profitable,” she told me.  While she’ll take on a tiny trust if the grantor insists, she warns that advisors should recognize that the trust company will pass on the cost of running it and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.

Where we go from here

Most of the people I talked to say the cost of running a trust has already gone about as low as it can go.

Mike Flinn from Advisory Trust and Douglas Blattmachr of Peak Trust agree that the cost of fiduciary compliance and routine service probably isn’t going any lower than around $3,000 per trust any time soon, especially given the current trend toward higher regulation.

“It’s expensive to be a fiduciary,” Blattmachr acknowledged in our conversation. “So that provides a floor on what people can offer.”

But beyond that level, technology keeps improving and letting efficient trust companies bring down their overall cost proposition. Blattmachr says low-end players can use technology to better serve the mass market. Kathy Roberts of Santa Fe Trust agrees.

Either way, Christopher Holtby of Wealth Advisors Trust told me that there’s always room for enthusiastic competitors.

“Wherever fees go,” he says, “there are going to be a lot more entrants in the trust service business.”

Scott Martin, contributing editor, The Trust Advisor.