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Estate planning: How to choose your key people

Estate planning: How to choose your key people

key estate planning roles

Estate planning can often bring a wave of emotions. For some, these emotions get in the way of implementing an estate plan. Thinking through and finalizing the asset flow of your estate plan is an important step in the estate plan, but choosing the people who will play pivotal roles within your plan is just as important.

Even the best formulated estate plan can run into snags if the wrong individuals are appointed to roles or the plan isn’t examined and updated to change out the key people as time goes on.

  • Take the time to think about who in your inner circle is best suited for the job.
  • Don’t let your emotions overwhelm your ability to get your plan in place.
  • Know that your key people will likely change as life progresses; it’s important to have conversations during life so you know the people you choose are up for the task.

Let’s review a handful of individuals you’ll need to build your estate plan.

Executor or personal representative

An executor or personal representative is the person you appoint in your will who will be in charge of gathering assets, taking assets through the probate process and distributing assets according to your will. Executors are in charge of completing court filings, paying taxes and taking care of any debts from the estate. You can appoint a friend, family member or professional to play this role. If you do not appoint someone, the court will appoint someone for you.

In your executor, you may look for someone who is:

  • Financially literate
  • Responsible
  • Amenable
  • Fair
  • Patient
  • Reliable
  • Organized

Their tasks include that they:

  • Adhere to a court schedule
  • Follow probate procedures
  • Complete paperwork
  • File tax returns
  • Manage administration
  • Communicate with beneficiaries
  • Liquidate assets
  • Manage assets
  • Potentially hire professionals

Trustee – successor trustee

A trustee is appointed by the trust creator (grantor) and is responsible for administering the trust according to the trust’s terms. Their administrative tasks include filing tax returns, reporting to beneficiaries, communicating with beneficiaries and making required distributions. Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of beneficiaries and can be held liable if this duty is breached. You can appoint a friend, family member, professional or institution to play this role.

In your trustee, you may look for someone who is:

  • Trustworthy
  • Financially responsible
  • Responsive
  • Has the time to dedicate
  • Understands the responsibility
  • Good communicator
  • Impartial

Their tasks include that they:

  • Uphold all fiduciary duties
  • Protect/manage assets
  • Administer the trust according to its terms
  • Manage beneficiary requests
  • Keep records/accountings
  • File tax returns
  • Communicate with beneficiaries

Guardian for minor children

If you have minor children, it’s recommended to appoint a guardian who would step in to care for your children in the event both parents passed away while the children are under age 18. For this role, you may want to consider nominating a friend or family member, who would raise them in a manner that reflects your values. It’s very important to get agreement from your selections before nominating, since it’s a major commitment. This selection is one of the most emotion-filled so take the time to think about who would be the best fit for your family.

In your children’s guardian, considerations include:

  • Similar values
  • Location
  • Lifestyle
  • Willingness
  • Appropriate age
  • Character
  • Resilience
  • Stable
  • Financially responsible

Their tasks include:

  • Childcare
  • Emotional support
  • Discipline
  • Guidance
  • Organizing food, housing, education, medical care
  • Role model
  • Safety
  • Love

Health care agent

Your health care agent is the person you nominate to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are ever unable to make these decisions for yourself. You make this selection in a health care or medical power of attorney document. You want someone who will follow your wishes and make decisions in the way that you would (even if they have an emotional conflict about the decision). The document can provide additional guidance for your agent to look to.

Traits to look for include:

  • Someone who lives in close proximity
  • Calm
  • Collected
  • Respectful
  • Stoic
  • Empathetic
  • Able to make hard decisions

Their tasks include:

  • Conferring with medical staff
  • Communicating with family
  • Making decisions

Financial agent

Your financial agent is the individual who you nominate in your financial power of attorney to step in and make your financial decisions if you are ever incapacitated. This person will have the ability to keep your financial life going, but you can limit their power within the document if you choose. You can also decide whether you want the document to become effective upon signing or only after a doctor/doctors confirm that you are unable to make the decisions yourself.

Traits to look for include:

  • Trustworthiness
  • Financial acumen
  • Organization

Their tasks include:

  • Paying bills
  • Completing transactions
  • Continuing business operations
  • Paying/filing taxes
  • Selling assets
  • Purchasing insurance
  • Collecting retirement benefits

The bottom line

Take the time to think through who best fits the needs of your estate plan.

For the executor and trustee roles, consider a professional if you think the objective, less emotional third party would best fit your situation. Know that these selections will most likely change as time goes on, and that’s okay.

Lastly, make sure you name at least one backup to each role. Finalizing your estate plan (and choosing your key people) will allow you to live life knowing your plan will flow according to your intentions and your loved ones will be better situated.

Interested in talking with a financial professional? Empower Personal Wealth offers fee-based wealth management services, and qualified individuals get access to estate planning specialists. You can get started by downloading our free finance tools and setting up a call with our wealth management team.

Jamie Vandergriff

Jamie Vandergriff


Jamie Vandergriff, J.D., LL.M., is a Senior Estate Planning Strategist at Empower. She aims to support high-net-worth clients in understanding the big picture of their succession plan while also working through the day-to-day issues. She focuses on taxes (both estate tax and income tax), trusts, entities and philanthropic planning to allow clients to evaluate goals, risks and opportunities. This helps empower them to balancing living how they desire with leaving the legacy they want.


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