Estate planning is about protecting and providing for those you love. The recent Valentine’s Day holiday still has me celebrating the affectionate ways that my clients care for their families. Of course, we also see examples of Cupid’s arrow doing damage: affections misplaced (or misused) or sibling rivalry taken to an extreme.
Part of creating an estate plan is choosing people we love to be “in charge” and act on our behalf when we cannot do so ourselves, either short term or permanently. There are three main roles to be filled in an estate plan: 1) someone to be in charge of finances when we can’t be because of death or incapacity, sometimes called a “fiduciary,” 2) someone who will make health care decisions for us if we are alive but cannot make those decisions for ourselves; and 3) people who will have the care and custody of our minor children if we can no longer parent them, aka “guardians.”
For financial decisions, the “person” chosen does not have to be an individual. Banks and trust companies can serve as fiduciaries. There is a flourishing cottage industry of “professional fiduciaries” in California.
Who you choose to be your fiduciary is a critical question. The job can be complex and even with solid documents in place, it can be risky given a tricky family situation. Some lawyers strongly encourage their clients to select non-family members to diffuse potential problems. Although I’m sensitive to the troubles that can occur, I usually prefer a family member because unlike a professional fiduciary or a bank, the family member often has valuable, inside knowledge of the needs of the beneficiaries. When my office interviews clients for document creation, we conduct a thorough check of the entire family situation so we can help our client determine the right fiduciary choice.
One qualification for fiduciaries is United States citizenship. This can be challenging for immigrants if they do not know a US citizen well enough to trust — trustworthiness is an all-important qualification! Financial ability is valuable, but advisors can be hired to help with those details. What you don’t want is a fiduciary who isn’t responsible with the funds or willing to see the job through.
The fiduciary typically serves long enough to gather assets, pay debts, and distribute the wealth to the beneficiaries. The role can last longer in situations like when parents of underage children have died and it is years before final distribution is to be made. My office makes sure that our clients name more than one fiduciary, usually to serve in sequential order, in case someone on the list is no longer viable to serve in the role. This person is listed as the executor of the will and has financial power of attorney as well.
You’ll note that I haven’t yet brought up geography. Location can matter. For example, if your primary fiduciary is located out of the country, work that they do will inevitably be more expensive. This is also true for someone who lives an airplane ride away. However, my advice is to prioritize trustworthiness over location. Having said that, in situations where the fiduciary needs to be involved day to day, it can be helpful to have that fiduciary nearby.
As with many of my articles, I approach the conclusion feeling like I’ve told you the rules, and then contradicted each one! Who should you choose? Well, choose carefully. Here are some factors to consider: Is one or more of my adult children appropriate for the task? Will the siblings get riled up and create bad blood, or will everyone get along? If I do choose a more distant family member or a family friend, are they trustworthy? How do they conduct their own personal financial lives? Can they do a good job with record keeping, especially in terms of expenses? Do my circumstances dictate that they should live nearby? Will the beneficiaries generally be agreeable, or will they need someone who will stand up to the potential “bullies” in my life? Will my death or illness cause the person I’ve selected so much grief that they can’t get this important job done? Will everyone love each other when the process is complete, or will strife tear them apart?