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Selecting Your Helpers (For Your Estate Plan)

Your estate plan needs people to make it work. The plan is the “map” to the destinations (results) you want, but your helpers are the ones that make it happen. These people are your trustees, executor, guardians, and agents (under Power of Attorney), who have the job of carrying out your wishes. Picking the right helpers is just as important as making a plan for your assets. 

What Kind of ‘Helpers’ Do You Need?

The fiduciaries, or helpers, you need depends on which estate planning documents you have. Some you might have include: 

  • Executors  — These people carry out the instructions left in a Last Will and Testament. Generally, the executor makes an inventory of the estate planner’s assets, pays final debts and taxes, and makes asset distributions. 
  • Trustees — As the name suggests, you need to find someone you really trust for this role. A trust is a legal contract that stipulates how certain assets should be handled and, eventually, distributed to beneficiaries. Their job is very much like an Executors, except without the formalities of probate.
  • Agents — Any powers of attorney you have will allow someone else the power/authority to do certain things on your behalf. These people are referred to as “agents.”
  • Guardians — If something were to happen to you and your children’s other parent, a guardian would need to step in to care for them. Guardians also care for adults unable to take care of themselves. 

Traits Your ‘Helpers’ Need

Your best friend in the entire world, who knows you better than anyone else, might be a poor choice for your executor, trustee, or power-of-attorney agent. Why? There could be a plethora of reasons. No matter how well a fiduciary knows you, your family, your estate, and your wishes, he or she needs several key traits, depending on the role they play

  • Attention to Detail – your Power of Attorney Agent needs to pay your bills on time, consult with your financial advisor about necessary investment adjustments as they come up, perhaps hire contractors to keep the home in shape, work with your CPA or tax preparer, keep your insurance contracts paid up and in force, just to name some of their duties. This is not a job where they can “wing it.” And the job may last for just a few days, or for several years. 
  • Communication with the Family – If Sally is named in your Power of Attorney, and has a sister and two brothers, she needs to let them know what she’s been doing, and update them on a regular basis. It’s about human nature – Sally could be diligently doing a great job, but if the rest of the family never hears from her, they’ll start to wonder what’s going on. So remind your helpers to keep the others informed, and invite them to see the checkbook, the statements, and any other reporting they all agree to. 
  • Maturity — Being the caretaker of your assets or minor children is an extremely important task. While state law helps shape the responsibilities and behavior of fiduciaries, the best practice is to name someone who understands the significance of looking after your estate. 
  • Time – I recall a case where a mother (who was in a nursing home) had named her son as an Agent under her Power of Attorney. He was a brilliant, successful businessman who was constantly traveling on business, often overseas. He simply did not have the time to handle her money, and when we got involved the nursing home was about to throw her out for being many months behind in paying her bills. Don’t name a person who’s that busy, or if you feel you must, name a co-Agent with them so the essential tasks get done.
  • Trustworthiness — You need assurances that your wishes will be followed. The smartest person you’ve ever known might believe that he or she knows better than you. Choose someone who will do what you ask. 

Have a “Deep Bench”

To the extent possible, name one or more backups. Naming only your spouse isn’t enough – who will take over if your first choice can’t serve? If your only choice for Power or Attorney is out of the picture, the only alternative is a Guardianship Hearing in Court. This takes time to complete, is far more expensive than a Power of Attorney document, and you run the risk of a “family feud” if people compete for the job. Added to all that is the emotional cost of you being dragged into court to prove that you’re disabled and unable to handle your own affairs.

If it’s your Executor who can’t serve, then all the people who are legally eligible to serve must agree about which of them will volunteer for the job. The risk is that either nobody wants to do it, or they can’t agree, which means your probate starts out by creating tension in the family. 

HighPoint Law Offices offers clients a unique, tailored approach to their estate planning needs. We’re not a cookie-cutter firm. Our team can stay with you as long as you need so your estate plan stays current and relevant. Ready to talk? Call us at (215) 997-9773 to discuss your legal needs.

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HighPoint Law Offices PC

At HighPoint Law Offices we support individuals, families, and businesses of all backgrounds with estate planning services that address their unique wishes, goals, and challenges.

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