Whom to choose?

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013

Whom to choose?

Beth and Rodney were getting up in years and knew they needed to make an estate plan. They had four children, all in their 50s and 60s: three daughters and a son. I asked them which of the four children would be their first choice for a successor trustee, to administer their estate after they had both died. There was no hesitation and not a doubt in their mind that it had to be the son. I wondered if this had something to do with their age and their culture, the idea that a son would naturally be the first choice. The oldest child, a daughter, would be their second choice. Beth and Rodney waxed proud about all of their children and, when I asked, said that, yes, all four got along very well.

A few years passed and Rodney died. Beth met with me to make sure that all property was in her name only, and we, again, discussed which of the children should be the successor trustee. At that point, she had the option to amend her trust and choose one of the other children. But she was convinced that her son Ralph was the best choice as he ran his own business and knew how take care of financial matters.

Beth died some years later. Her son Ralph called me right away. He wanted to get started on trust administration. He shared with me some of the emails he was already receiving from his sisters Louisa, Cindy and Sharon. Not a day after their mother had died, they began hounding brother Ralph to liquidate bank accounts and give them “their money.”

Ralph had a lot of work to do first. He needed to establish a trust administration account at a bank and obtain a new taxpayer I.D. number so that trust interest would be reported to the IRS under that number and not under Beth’s social security number. He needed to find out just where all of the parents’ assets were located, which ones already had designated beneficiaries and which needed to be collected into the trust administration account. He needed to interview realtors and get a sense of what would need to be done to prepare his parents’ large Oakland house, with all of its deferred maintenance, for eventual sale.

But while Ralph began doing his job as successor trustee admirably, his sisters wouldn’t let up. They pounded him with vicious emails and phone calls, insinuating that they might even seek out their own attorneys to challenge what he was doing as trustee.

They each stood to inherit over a half million dollars, and they were utterly ungracious about Ralph’s efforts to get that money to them. I couldn’t help wondering if my original clients Beth and Rodney had any idea of the animosity their daughters held toward their son. Maybe they knew. Maybe they knew and still wanted Ralph to be trustee. Maybe he was the most stable among the kids.

The drama, in what was really a very simple, straightforward trust administration, underscores the need for parents to choose wisely among their children when they select a trustee. Will the choice of Child #1 cause rifts among the others? Will Child #1 be burdened by unreasonable attacks by his or her siblings? Of course, parents can’t predict how their children will behave once they’re gone and they may not fully understand the dynamics between their adult children.

It’s something to think about when making an estate plan and choosing among a number of adult children. We want our deaths to come peacefully, and we want our wishes regarding our property to be carried out in as smooth and harmonious a manner as possible.