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Some Perspective on Choosing a Trustee

Having spent years in an estate planning environment, I noticed some common themes related to the administration of trusts. Here are some thoughts to consider:


1. No matter how well-meaning a child is when agreeing to act as Trustee for their parents, they are rarely, if ever, prepared for what is to come when it’s time to act. It seems like a good idea when they are in the attorney’s office with their parents, and of course they would do anything for their parents. They brought them into this world after all.


But when the time comes and their parents have passed away, the last thing they want to do is dismantle their parents’ entire life. They want to take the time to grieve, to spend time with their families, they still must work, they still have kids who need rides to soccer, and dance and school plays. The average trust administration is said to take around 420 hours of work, and that’s an average trust settlement. This is not something one squeezes in. Most Trustees could really use some help getting through some, or all, of the heavy lifting they’ve recently assumed.


2. Husband and wife come into the attorney’s office to complete their estate plan and almost every time both spouses name each other as their Trustee. And one day, one of the spouses passes away. Sometimes, it’s the husband who has handled all the finances for their entire marriage. In these cases, the wife is happy that her husband is handling matters and doesn’t bother to learn all about the couple’s assets.


So now she just lost her husband whom she loved dearly, she is grieving, and she is now faced with figuring out where all the assets are, going through all the papers he “organized”, deciding what to do with all of the personal property that was his, and basically get through the day. This is the last thing she wants to spend her time on. She wants to grieve, spend time with family, make decisions about how she will go on without her best friend by her side, and maybe travel a little because he was so busy working all the time they didn’t travel as much as she wished they did. She could use a hand to help her get through the mountain of work that has just been placed upon her lap.


3. Couples go to great lengths to prepare their estate plan, they let their kids know in advance what their plans are, and yet there is always one kid who makes things “challenging”. Sometimes that child starts the fighting while their parents are still alive. This is quite common actually. Almost 80% of the cases I worked on had at least one family member who caused a ruckus in the process of unraveling the trust assets. This puts a lot of stress on the Trustee whose job it is to follow the wishes spelled out in the trust. This can involve some empathy, some psychology, and some tough love. Oftentimes, when it’s a family with long time family dynamics, this can be a challenge for a Trustee who is also a family member. They could use someone to run interference in matters of emotions, an empathetic, loving, third party who doesn’t have a stake in the game.


4. Second marriages often come with contention between kids on either side of the second marriage. I’ve seen some disagreements that would astound you, and their parents planned well in advance. And on to the lawsuit we go. This delays everybody’s inheritance and causes a lot of grief for the entire family. This can cost the trust a lot of money in legal fees and time wasted. Emotions can be high in families, particularly after a loss. Having an unbiased third party on hand can make all the difference.


5. No matter how good the estate plan and the attorney who meticulously prepared the plan, when the parties of the trust pass away, it is still a treasure hunt that can last years unless one’s assets are completely organized at the time of their death. It can cost the trust, and ultimately the heirs, a lot of money unraveling it all. Ideally, a Trustee would have someone by their sides helping to organize everything for them, prepare a systematic task list prioritizing each task, and helping with whatever tasks the Trustee doesn’t feel they can handle on their own.


6. I’ve seen some crazy trust administration cases where we had to discover around 50 long lost relatives, and one where we had to locate an illegitimate child from another country. We’ve had rare, signed books, a store’s worth of jewelry and other rare collectibles that needed to be appraised. You just never know what you are going to come across in a person’s life when they pass away.


The bottom line is people are complicated and don’t always tell everybody everything there is to know or where everything is. They aren’t always organized, and they don’t always consider all the possible outcomes. Even the brightest attorneys cannot predict how things may play out. They key is to have people in your corner who are experienced, resourceful and who can help figure out anything unusual that arises.


We are here for you!


*We are not attorneys or financial advisors. We do not give legal of financial advice.

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