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Trust Account Rules and Regulations For Attorneys

Updated: Apr 24

As a law firm in California, it is important to understand the trust account rules and regulations to maintain compliance with the State Bar of California. Here are some key points to remember that you need to know.

Trust Account Rules and Regulations For Attorneys


1. What is a Trust Account?

A trust account is a separate account that is used to hold client funds. These funds may include money for retainers, settlements, or other fees. The purpose of a trust account is to ensure that client funds are kept separate from the law firm's operating account.

How Do the Different Types of Trust Accounts Fit Into Each State’s Rules & Regulations?

In California, attorneys are required to follow strict rules and regulations regarding trust accounts in order to maintain compliance with the State Bar of California. Estate planning attorneys must understand the different types of trust accounts and the state law requirements for each type. Here are some types of trust accounts and how they fit into California State's Rules & Regulations.



A revocable living trust

A legal arrangement where an individual (the grantor) places their assets into a trust during their lifetime and can change or revoke it at any time.

Irrevocable Trust

It cannot be modified or terminated by the grantor once created unless all beneficiaries consent to the changes. It is often used for estate planning, asset protection, and tax minimization.

Special needs trust

A legal arrangement designed to provide ongoing financial support to a person with disabilities while preserving their eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income.

Charitable trusts

Are legal entities that manage funds donated to philanthropic causes. These trusts are subject to specific laws and regulations and must be registered with the appropriate government agency.

A testamentary trust

A trust created in a person's will and comes into effect after their death. It is used to manage and distribute assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust.

2. Importance of Trust Accounts

play a crucial role in the legal industry, ensuring client funds are kept separate from law firm funds. By following the rules and regulations for trust accounts, law firms can maintain the trust and confidence of their clients while avoiding the risk of disciplinary action from the State Bar.

In addition to being a regulatory requirement, trust accounts provide many benefits for law firms.

For example, trust accounts can help improve a law firm's financial management, allowing for easy tracking and monitoring of client funds. Trust accounts can also help reduce the risk of client disputes over fees and billing. Key concepts to understand your client Trust accounting responsibilities

You should have understood the following seven key concepts to follow the Trust Account Rules.

Key Concept 1: Separate Clients Are Separate Accounts

Client funds must be kept separate, even when held in a common trust account. Maintain a client ledger for each individual client's funds to avoid losing track of how much money each client has. Client funds that earn income over the costs to hold the account cannot be placed in an IOLTA account.

Key Concept 2: You Can’t Spend What You Don’t Have

Each client has only his or her own funds available to cover their expenses, no matter how much money belonging to other clients is in your common client trust bank account.

Your common client trust bank account might have a balance of $100,000, but if you are only holding $10.00 for a particular client, you can't write a check for $10.50 on behalf of that client without using some other client's money.

Key Concept 3: There's No Such Thing As A “Negative Balance“

In client trust accounting, there are only three possibilities:

  • You have a positive balance (while you are holding money for a client);

  • You have a zero balance (when all the client's money has been paid out);

  • You have a balance of less than zero (a so-called “negative balance”) and a problem.

Key Concept 4: Timing Is Everything

When depositing a client's funds into a trust account, it can take time for the funds to become available. Do not make payments on behalf of clients before their deposited funds have cleared, as this can result in using other clients' money or spending money clients do not have.

Key Concept 5: You Can't Play The Game Unless You Know The Score

In client trust accounting, there are two types of balances: the running balance for each client and the running balance for each client's trust bank account. To maintain the running balance for a client, you add every deposit and subtract every payment to get the client's remaining balance. Similarly, to maintain the running balance for a client trust bank account, you add every deposit and subtract every payment to get the account balance. Always check the client's running balance before writing checks from the client's trust bank account to avoid overdrafts.

Key Concept 6: The Final Score Is Always Zero

The goal in client trust accounting is to ensure that every dollar received on behalf of a client is paid out. Lawyers may have minor, inactive balances in their client trust bank accounts due to errors, forgotten fees, or uncleared checks. These balances should be taken care of promptly to avoid accounting difficulties.

Key Concept 7: Always Maintain An Audit Trail

An audit trail is a series of bank-created records that track the movement of client funds. It should start when the funds are received and continue until the final payment is made. Maintaining an audit trail is crucial for ensuring proper care of client funds, tracking accounting errors, and answering questions that may arise. The key to a good audit trail is being descriptive. Every check and deposit slip should include client information and the purpose of the transaction. A good audit trail should include the initial deposit slip, bank statement, checkbook stub, canceled check, and copies of executed drafts.

3. Regulations for Trust Accounts

To comply with the rules and regulations of the State Bar of California, law firms must follow these requirements for trust accounts:

  1. The trust account must be held in a financial institution authorized to do business in California.

  2. The account must be designated as a trust account and titled "Client Trust Account" or "Attorney Trust Account."

  3. The account must be reconciled monthly, and the records must be maintained for at least five years.

  4. Only client funds should be deposited into the account.

4. Prohibited Activities About Trust Accounts

Certain activities are strictly forbidden trust accounts. Law firms must avoid engaging in the following actions:

  1. Commingling of funds: It is prohibited to deposit personal funds or funds from the law firm into the trust account.

  2. Neglecting to record transactions: All transactions must be recorded accurately and promptly.

  3. Paying personal or business expenses from the trust account.

  4. Borrowing funds from the trust account.

5. Penalties for Non-Compliance

The State Bar of California takes trust account violations very seriously. Failure to comply with the trust account rules and regulations may result in disciplinary action, including fines, suspension, or disbarment.

California law firms must adhere to the trust account rules and regulations to maintain compliance with the State Bar and protect their client's funds. Failure to comply with these rules and regulations can lead to severe consequences for the law firm and its clients.

6. Understanding Fees & Costs Associated with Setting Up a Trust Account

Creating and managing a trust account can come with various fees and costs. Here are some of the fees and expenses associated with setting up and managing a trust account:

  • Initial set-up fees: Many banks and financial institutions charge fees for setting up a new one. This fee may vary depending on the type of account and the institution.

  • Annual fees: Some banks may charge an annual fee for maintaining the trust account. This fee may be a flat rate or a percentage of the account balance.

  • Transaction fees: Banks may charge a fee for each transaction made on the trust account, such as deposits or withdrawals.

  • Investment fees: If the trust account is invested in stocks, bonds, or other securities, there may be fees associated with managing those investments.

  • Legal fees: Depending on the complexity of the trust and the legal requirements, there may be legal fees associated with setting up and managing the trust account.

  • Accounting fees: Law firms and other professional service providers may charge fees for managing the accounting and record-keeping for the trust account.

  • Other costs: Other costs associated with managing a trust account may include taxes, insurance, and administrative expenses.

Understanding the fees and costs associated with setting up and managing a trust account is essential, as they can significantly impact the trust's overall value. By working with a qualified financial advisor or attorney, clients can ensure that they know all costs associated with their trust account and can make informed decisions about managing their funds.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion, trust account rules and regulations are critical to running a law firm in California. By following these rules and regulations, law firms can maintain compliance with the State Bar, protect their client's funds, and improve their financial management practices. All law firms in California must fully understand and adhere to these rules and regulations to ensure the success and sustainability of their practice.

Irvine Bookkeeping are expert in law firm bookkeeping. We specialize in managing trust accounts with precision, ensuring compliance with all legal regulations. Trust us to keep your financial records accurate and focus on your clients.

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