Estate Planning Cast of Characters

Estate planning is much more than simply drafting a will and leaving it at that. If you’re a parent, you want to make sure you’re putting your children in the best possible position for decades to come.

If you’re a parent, you want to make sure you’re putting your children in the best possible position for decades to come.

Regardless of your family situation, a lack of adequate estate planning can have major consequences in your life and the lives of those you love. Making no decisions at all can leave your care and assets in the hands of strangers through public court proceedings.

On the other hand, a comprehensive estate plan can provide you with control while protecting your family’s inheritance.

One of the most crucial components of comprehensive estate planning is the process of selecting fiduciaries.

Trustees, executors, healthcare and financial agents, and guardians for minors are just a handful of the fiduciaries you’ll need to name.

These fiduciaries are substituted decision makers that step in when you’re no longer able to make decisions, either because you’ve become incapacitated or because you’ve passed away.

Think of these people as your estate planning cast of characters — the people who will play various important roles in carrying out the terms of your plan. But who will you appoint, and what is it exactly that each of these individuals do?

Here are some frequently asked questions regarding your estate planning cast of characters:

Who should I pick as trustee?

Trustees manage assets contained within a trust. To figure out how to select the right person for the job, first consider whether the trustee should be an individual or a financial institution. If choosing an individual, pick someone you know who is diligent and detail-oriented, and whom you trust to carry out your clear instructions.

What does a successor trustee do?

A successor trustee can also be either an individual or an institution. This party serves as a back-up, or successor, to the original trustee in case the first trustee passes away or is incapable or unwilling to perform their duties regarding the management of your trust.

Should I pick a corporate trustee?

While it’s straightforward enough to pick a friend or family member you think will be up to the task, picking a corporate trustee is the best option for some people. Banks and trust companies that focus on trusteeship provide expert management. Being unrelated to your personal life, you can also rely on them to be impartial. However, corporate trustees do come at a cost.

What does a guardian do?

Guardians and conservators are court-appointed individuals who make decisions on a person’s behalf in the event of mental or physical incapacity. This can be avoided by adding proper powers of attorney, and explicit directions for them, to your estate plan.

What’s the difference between my health care agent and my financial agent?

While there is some overlap, healthcare and financial agents are two distinct roles in an estate plan. Your health care agents, also referred to as health care powers of attorney or health care proxy, are responsible for making medical decisions on your behalf and may also implement your pre-arranged instructions if you experience incapacity. Likewise, financial agents can manage your wealth, pay bills, file taxes, purchase insurance, and adjust investments for you if you become unable to do so yourself. They may or may not be the same person; it’s up to you to decide who is best for each role.

What does personal representative mean — is that different than an executor?

A personal representative is the same as an executor. This is the individual or institution named in a will who becomes responsible for carrying out the instructions provided in your will during the probate process.

Working with an estate planning attorney to pick your cast of characters eases the burden of figuring it all out on your own. Making these choices may seem daunting, but it can cut costs over the long-term by keeping your assets in the family and away from court control.

Making these choices may seem daunting, but it can cut costs over the long-term by keeping your assets in the family and away from court control.

And best of all, an estate planning attorney help you coordinate how fiduciary selection fits in with your big-picture goals.