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Choose Your Weapon: Cautionary Tales of Trustee Mis-Selection

by • October 1, 2014 • 2014, Expert Advice, Money Matters, October 2014

The image is as clear as any Norman Rockwell calendar that catches a concept of childhood. Many moons past, my four-year-old son, decked out as his favorite Ninja Turtle, his hands placed adamantly on his hips, grips his two plastic Samurai swords, and from behind his red cloth mask challenges all comers with the command: “Choose your weapon!” Some poses preserve themselves without any effort on our part.

I remember reading my children Dr. Seuss’ story of the misguided Yertle, king of the turtles, who ill-used his planning opportunity to make his throne from the turtles he ruled. It was no surprise when King Yertle tumbled from the heights to a place deep in the mud below him.

“Dad,” laughed my daughter, “Was Yertle related to the Ninja Turtles?”

“Each of us,” I answered, “has days when she is Michelangelo, and days when she is Yertle.”

Choosing homes, cars, employees, office space – since those late eighties Ninja and Yertle days, life has presented many opportunities for choosing paths. Occasionally, we face challenges with the confidence of middle-aged Ninja Turtle Warriors, and some days we wind up in the mud, like their cousin Yertle. Armed with the swords of planning and preparation, we stand a better chance of facing the evening with clean faces.

One of the muddiest results clients often reach is at the end of a path which begins when parents of competitive children name one of their offspring as executor of their estate or trustee of their trust. Admittedly, this is a showing of profound faith: a belief that those who did not, during their parents’ lives, fare well together, will suddenly blossom into beings who play together joyfully following their parents’ deaths. Count on it: if your kids don’t like each other now, they will relish the chance to wrestle in the mud when you are not there to pull them apart in the first forays of their fighting.

Those who choose trustees wisely consider the level of friendship among their children over time. Our office has seen highly educated children argue for hours (translation: heightened lawyers’ fees) about who is more qualified to make a decision about how to sell a barbeque grill or how to dispose of a collection of cat calendars from 1971. With rare exception, trustees who are not related to the beneficiaries experience fewer confrontations in distributing assets to strong-willed siblings than do trustees who derive from the same lineage as the beneficiaries of the trust.

Fortunately, the marketplace is an orchard ripe with professionals prepared to represent the wishes of the parents without sparking the explosions that arise from the ageless angst of angry adult children. Professional trustees and private fiduciaries flourish managing the estates where the siblings of angry children fail. Additionally, these fiduciaries may offer  the  last chance for us to make certain that our children don’t kill each other after we have hung up our ninja swords for the last time.

We choose the books, movies and stories that we present to our children when they are young: this is our job, our sacred assignment. We should act no less carefully in choosing the managers we name for our trusts and estates before we close the cover on the text of our biographies. The persons we name to distribute our estates are often as important as how we direct the assets to be distributed.  M

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