Estate Planning 101: Who Will Carry On Your Legacy?

Estate planning 101 starts with understanding that a trust is more than an opportunity to guarantee that your assets are distributed the way you see fit upon your death. A trust is also a great way to pass your legacy on to the next generation, whether they be your family, friends or someone else deserving of the privilege.

Your trustee will have an immense responsibility thrust upon their shoulders following your death. But finding a trustee is easier said than done. How do you know how someone will act once you're not around anymore? If you appoint the wrong person as trustee, they might just end up making you "roll over" in your grave.

The Purpose of a Trust in Estate Planning

When establishing a trust you will be outlining your assets and who will receive those assets upon your death. You will also outline certain conditions that may be placed on your assets.

For example, you may state that your children will receive an equal share of your estate upon your death. But you can also add that your children shall not receive a distribution if they have a drug or alcohol addiction or if they have a creditor who would seize the funds. The trust may also set up distributions to minor children so that they don’t receive a large inheritance when they turn 18.

How Do I Pick My Trustee?

As stated earlier, appointing a trustee to your trust is an important part of estate planning. In most situations, you will be the trustee during your lifetime and if you have a spouse your spouse will be trustee if they survive you.

However, you will need to select a successor Trustee of your Trust who will manage your estate following your death. (Even if you have a spouse, you may not want them to be the trustee). This successor Trustee may be a family member, friend, company, etc.

Factors To Consider When Picking Your Trustee

What Will My Trustee Do?

  1. Your Trustee will make funeral and burial arrangements along with family members.
  2. Inform your family members and heirs of the estate plans of the deceased. (This is the part you see in movies).
  3. Your Trustee will pay off creditors and hire professional as needed to assist with the estate. (Lawyers, real estate agents, etc.).
  4. Your Trustee will determine what exactly your assets are to make sure they are distributed to the heirs/beneficiaries of your Trust.
  5. Your Trustee will organize your assets for distribution. This may include listing and selling property, transferring ownership of businesses, jewelry, art, bank accounts, etc.

How Large is Your Estate?

If your trust is only worth a couple million dollars or less, listing a family member as the trustee is probably your best option. However, if your estate is worth over $4 million you may want to consider listing a lawyer as the successor trustee of your estate.

And if you've been fortunate enough to accumulate an estate worth over $10 million you may want to consider listing a trust company or bank as the trustee of your estate. "Absolute power corrupts." Need I say more?

Note: If you appoint a trust company to manage your trust it will cost tens of thousands of dollars, so this option is only viable for large estates.

When Should You Appoint a Non-Relative Trustee?

If you have heirs who are likely to disagree and cause problems, you may want to list a non-family member or a friend as the Trustee so that a third party can make decisions. This way you can avoid potential contention and litigation over your estate.

Does Your Trustee Have Good Financial Skills?

If you are selecting a family member, choose one who has shown good financial skills over their life. If you’re selecting a child over another, consider their financial skills, work background, and family dynamics.

Note: Choose someone who is well organized and who can get things done. You want a responsible person to be your trustee.

What Are The Dynamics of Your Family?

Every family is different, some have gold diggers or feuds, others have delinquents. Maybe your children are too young to be trustees, or you don't have a spouse. In any case, just think long and hard on this one!

Will You Compensate Your Trustee For Managing Your Estate?

You may compensate them or give them something extra from the estate for taking on the responsibility but generally family members are appointed to serve without compensation. Those with large estates may want to hire a professional instead. At any rate, you can do your trustee a favor and supply them with our article on the duties of a trustee.

Can Your Heir/Beneficiary Be a Trustee?

Yes, you may have your beneficiary/heir serve as Trustee. Most people who have adult children will list a child as the successor Trustee and this person will typically be a beneficiary/heir.
 Note: While there is some conflict of interest in this arrangement, the Trustee is bound to the terms of the Trust and can’t abuse that discretion for their own personal benefit.

Should You Appoint Co-Trustees?

Some people will consider listing co-beneficiaries as successor Trustees. This can be a way to involve more than one family member in the distribution of the estate so that one person doesn’t feel left out.
While there can be some benefits to involving another person as Trustee it can cause tension and confusion as to who is doing what. Make sure you're specific about their authority and responsibility if you are listing multiple trustees.

Who is Most Commonly Listed as Trustee?

Most persons with adult children will list one of their children as successor Trustee. Most persons with younger children will list a sibling or close friend as their successor Trustee.


Last Updated: 
November 15, 2017

Scott Royal Smith is an asset protection attorney and long-time real estate investor. He's on a mission to help fellow investors free their time, protect their assets, and create lasting wealth.

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