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The public trustee is an office established pursuant to national (and, where applicable, state or territory) statute, to act as a trustee, usually where a sum is required to be deposited as security by legislation, where courts remove another trustee, or for estates where either no executor is named by will or the testator elects to name the Public Trustee.
The first Public Trustee is that of New Zealand; it was proposed by Edward Cephas John Stevens in 1870 due to the difficulty of finding reliable private trustees in the colony and adopted by Prime Minister Julius Vogel who established the Public Trust and installed Jonas Woodward as the world's first Public Trustee on January 1, 1873. Initially it was a part-time for position for one man, the government had not anticipated that much of the public would prefer to trust a bureaucrat with their estate - by the mid 20th century the New Zealand Public Trustee gained nearly 1/3 of the estate market in the country, was undertaking many statutory duties beyond this and employed a staff of a thousand. meanwhile the idea was spreading, initially across the Tasman, where South Australia established a Public trustee on the same model on 1 January 1881, making it the first Public Trustee established in Australia.
The office of Public Trustee was adopted by several other countries of the Commonwealth, including the United Kingdom, (founded 1906), where it plays a far more limited role, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore, most Canadian provinces and all Australian states. The office also appears, in a different sense, in some states of the United States.although this has declined to just under 20 percent.
United Kingdom and Australia
There is a public trustee in each state and territory of Australia and a similar national position exists under English law. The public trustee primarily performs the role of trustee of deceased's estates where no executor is appointed, or the executor declines to act (and no other person is appropriate). Some public trustees also provide a free or inexpensive service for drawing wills (receiving remuneration upon administering the estate). The public trustees also manage the estates of infants (such as in cases where they receive a damages settlement), prisoners, and others under a disability (legal or otherwise), when required. The public trustee may also act as trustee of unclaimed property in some states (Australia).
Although much reduced in size after a series of restructurings in the 1990s, and unsuccessful moves into conveyancing, unit trust-like investments and other non-core business, which led to large losses at the end of the decade, the office has now returned to profit. As at 2005 it held over 330,000 wills and drafted over 21,000 wills per year, managed 3,500 residential properties, 400 charitable trusts and 30 farms, employing 450 people at 35 offices. Public Trust was a corporation sole until 2001, when it was moved to a company-like structure called a 'Crown entity'.