Estate planning can be complicated. In addition to different ways to structure a plan, multiple people can be involved. Most of the time, the people making decisions within the different documents are the same person. However, they don’t have to be. As such, it’s important to understand what the different positions and documents require.
Attorneys-in-Fact – This person can also be called an Agent, but it’s the person acting through a Power of Attorney. Their power either begins immediately or when a person is no longer able to make decisions for themselves. However, this power ends with the person creating the document (also known as the principal) dies. The attorney-in-fact can have many different responsibilities, but I generally divide it into two categories. The first being responsibility over the principal’s assets which remain in the principal’s name and legal decisions. The best example of this is generally making decisions over insurance policies or retirement accounts. They must use these assets for the principal’s benefits. The second category is medical decisions. The attorney-in-fact has the power of what treatments the principal should receive, may sign off on medical waivers, and will make the final decision on end of life treatment.
Personal Representative – Previously called an executor or executrix, this is the person acting under an individual’s will. When acting as a personal representative (or PR), that person will have to locate the will and deliver it to the probate court. They will then be responsible to the court to determine what assets must pass through probate with an inventory and accounting of those assets. The PR will have to determine what to do with assets, pay any creditor claims, and is responsible for all filings submitted to the court. At the end of the probate matter, the PR will also be the one who divides the estate to any beneficiaries.
Guardians – For many families, this is the most important role. This is specified in the will and is vital for determining who is responsible for minor or incompetent children. The court has the final decision on who a guardian will be, but a parent’s will and wishes are often respected.
Trustees – A trustee is the person responsible for enforcing the terms of the trust. Essentially this means that when the principal is no longer able to make decisions (or chooses not to), the trustee will take control of any assets held in the trust’s name. At that point they will use the assets for the person who created the trust. When the principal passes, the trustee will be responsible for either distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries or managing the assets for the beneficiaries. This position can last for multiple years and generations.
All of these roles require a person to act in the best interests of the principal or the beneficiaries, but there can be very little oversight. A lot of responsibility and power comes with attorneys-in-fact, personal representatives, guardians, and trustees and there is definitely the ability to abuse the power. As such, it’s extremely important to choose the right person for each role and most importantly choose someone who can be trusted.