Preparing to be a Trustee: What Do I Need to Know Now?

In Estate Planning by Dannell Stuart


By Dannell Stuart, CFP®
Partner, Director of Business Development

Have you been named in someone’s estate plan as their executor or trustee? Whether it’s an aging parent, sibling, or a friend, preparing for this eventual responsibility can and should start as soon as your name is written into their documents. If you invest time now in understanding both the big picture as well as the details of their estate, you could save that time tenfold in the future.

I recently went through this with my mom’s estate. Even after working for 20 years as a professional financial advisor, serving as executrix on behalf of my family was more challenging and stressful than I ever could have imagined.

If you have been named as executor or successor trustee for someone’s estate, you may be wondering what steps you can take now to ease the stress and burden of this role in the future. If you have the opportunity, I suggest you have a meeting to gather as much of the following important information as you can. This is information you will need eventually anyway, but having it in advance helps you become more organized while you’re in a better emotional state to do so!

Here are the things I recommend you ask:

    1. Get a full list of assets, including real estate, investment accounts, annuities, IRAs, bank accounts, automobiles, etc.
    2. For bank, investment, annuity and IRA accounts, ask for a copy of the most recent statement so you have the account number and investment advisor contact information handy.
    3. For bank accounts, it may make sense for them to go ahead and add you as a co-owner or check signor now, so that if you need to write checks from the account you are able to do so. Otherwise, once the sole account owner is deceased, most banks will freeze the account and you will not have access to money that you need for final expenses.
    4. Ask them where they keep their check book. That way, when the time comes you can see if any checks were written recently and not yet cashed, therefore avoiding the potential for the checks to bounce due to insufficient funds.
    5. Find out where Social Security and pension payments are deposited. They may be deposited to different accounts.
    6. For real estate, ask how the property is titled and where the deed is.
    7. If the property is not paid off, ask for information regarding the mortgage (a recent mortgage statement) so you know the balance and payment information. Take note if the payment is on auto pay or if they are sending a check in each month.
    8. For other assets, like cars, ask how they are titled and get copies of the pink slips or find out where they are kept.

Ask if there are any other liabilities and get copies of those statements (auto loans, credit cards).

  • Ask if there is any insurance, and get copies of the declaration pages for each policy. This includes homeowners, auto, umbrella, life, disability and long-term care. Find out what the billing status is, and get a copy of a recent statement. Look to see if it is on auto pay or if premium payments are made manually.
  • Ask if they have any safe deposit boxes. Find out the location (which bank) and the location of the key.
  • Get a copy of their most recent tax return.
  • Get copies of all estate planning documents. This includes trust, wills, power of attorney and healthcare directives. Read those documents so that you can ask them any clarifying questions while they are still able to answer them.
  • You’ll find you now have most important contacts (CPA is listed on tax return, Estate Planning attorney is listed on trust, insurance agent is listed on declaration pages, investment advisor is listed on statements) but ask if there are any other professional advisor contacts you should be aware of.
  • Try to streamline bill payment so that all utilities and liabilities are paid automatically each month.
  • Find out if they have a storage unit – and get location and access info. They may want to add you as authorized to access it now.
  • Find out if they have any airline or hotel mileage or points, and get the account information on those.
  • Ask if they keep any cash or valuables in their home and if so, where (home safe, dresser drawer, etc.)
  • If it’s not specified in their estate documents, ask what their final wishes are regarding their disposition. This includes cremation or burial, and if burial maybe they already have a plot reserved and paid for. Also ask about what they want for a funeral or memorial service.
  • If you have aging parents and you are concerned about them opening new credit unintentionally or having their identity stolen, I suggest you sign them up for a credit monitoring service. That way you (or they) will get notified if someone is using their Social Security Number to try to get new credit.

What if the responsibilities are too much for me?
If this list feels overwhelming (which it is), just know that you may be able to hire an attorney, bookkeeper, accountant or professional trustee to help you when the time comes. If you feel you will not be able to handle these responsibilities due to work, family demands or any other reason, this is the time to talk to your family member about other possible candidates for this role.

Serving as trustee is a big job. We can help.
Once you do become trustee, and hopefully that is not for a long time, there will be a new list of things to do. We can cross that bridge when we get to it!

Also, as trustee one of your responsibilities is to safeguard the trust assets. To assist you in managing trust investments wisely and in minimizing risks, you may delegate some of these responsibilities to an independent wealth advisor. We can take some of this work off your hands, serving as co-fiduciary and providing the appropriate documentation that trustees are required to maintain.

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