by Michael Ettinger, Esq.
Previously we wrote about the lawyer as co-trustee in the second marriage setting. The main concern there was to protect the share and the interests of the deceased spouse and their family. This was a situation ideally suited for the lawyer as trustee due to inadequate protection if one of the surviving spouse’s children acts as co-trustee, and the inevitable conflict that arises if one of the deceased spouse’s children acts as co-trustee.
For singles and couples without children, the lawyer as co-trustee fulfills an entirely different function. In the couples setting, we are really referring to the issues that arise after the first spouse dies. From an estate planning point of view, couples without children ultimately have the same issues as singles.
So whether you are single now or eventually become one your key issue is not planning for death, not who you are leaving it to and certainly not having a will. Your key issue is planning for disability. Should you be unable, at some point, to handle your financial and legal affairs due to accident or illness, who will take over? If you don’t have a strong plan for disability, which they say eventually happens to about half of all people, you are at considerable risk of having the wrong person or a stranger take over your affairs. In the event of disability, virtually anyone (hospital, doctor, lawyer, social worker, neighbor, relative, friend, etc.) may commence a proceeding to have a legal guardian appointed for you. Once you enter into this bureaucratic process, usually involuntarily, it is exceedingly difficult to extricate yourself and you lose precious control over your affairs. We often say you are only as strong as your back-up plan. If you have set up a living trust, you are in charge now, but the trust says who takes over in the event of disability. You get the person or persons you have chosen, not a court appointed legal guardian, along with the many thousands of dollars in costs that such proceedings entail.
So, who should you choose? Our advice is to choose two people. One a friend or relative who is willing to undertake the responsibility and then the lawyer as co-trustee. The lawyer will see to it that the trust is run properly and that all of your affairs are handled according to law. It takes a considerable amount of the anxiety, pressure and responsibility off of your friend or relative who has so kindly agreed to undertake this task. Further, you have two people signing off on all decisions, and everyone knows what two heads are better than. Not only is the possibility of a mistake being made greatly reduced, but it also eliminates the risk of misappropriation of assets. In some cases, where clients do not have a friend or relative available for this purpose or where they do not want to burden anyone with the responsibility, the lawyer may act as sole trustee.
New York trustee’s fees, which only take effect when the trustee is called upon to act, are 1.05% of the first $400,000, .45% of the next $200,000 and .3% of any amounts over $600,000. So, for example, on a one million dollar trust, the trustee’s commission would be $6,300.00 per year.
Perhaps the greatest insight your writer has gained in over thirty years of practicing law, is that planning for disability is more important than planning for death. The lawyer as co-trustee may be an invaluable asset to the childless person in the event of disability.