|Dealing with the human side of administering a trust|
Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can be made. ~Immunuel Kant
325 days into my dad's trust, I am a certified expert on getting things done...Really, I have actual certificates that show the timeline of work that I've done since my dad passed away last November. A handful of notarized documents gave me the authority to administer the unfinished business of his life—all of it, down to the last one thousandth of a cent. When I signed a contract to serve as Successor Trustee the week after he died, I became a project manager. Since then I have spent every day untangling the network of details that defined his everyday activities.
Hell is other people. ~ Jean-Paul Satre
Trustworthiness is at the core of this job, and it is the molten center from which the trust evolves. I refer to it as the molten center because there is nothing easy about creating a trust or carrying out its administration after the original trustee dies. A trust begins with the belief that the chosen successor has what it takes to navigate the rocky terrain of bureaucratic chasms and the pyroclastic flow of human drama.
Next in line are the beneficiaries and the trust attorney each of whom has the authority to hold the successor trustee accountable for every administrative decision he or she makes. It's part of a necessary system of checks and balances that keep the successor on track.
After that, there are the bank representatives; step-relatives; friends of the deceased; accountants; neighbors; lawyers for the people who threaten to sue the trust; contractors; cops; billing representatives who are always having a bad day; city employees; shareholder's administrators who may be located overseas; greedy insurance agents; bastardic Internet providers; DMV employees; the nameless, no bullshit IRS; county employees and postal workers. None of these people knew me, and they certainly did not trust me.
Alright everyone, gird your loins! ~Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada
(Funny blooper reel)
So, how do you navigate the human obstacles? Here are some tips from nearly a year of working on a trust.
Never get on the phone when you're tired. Don't make calls and don't answer the phone unless you feel positive and energized. The person on the other end of the line is not your friend, and they are there to do their job. Be patient and have exit strategies available when frustration sets in, and you need to get off the phone.
"I'm sorry, I need to check my files and get back to you." Or, "Excuse me, but I am brain dead from working on this all day. I'll need to follow up with you tomorrow." When you feel the life draining out of you, get off the phone.
A good night's sleep is extremely important. Allow for regular meal times and down time at night to unwind.
Exercise. Watch a ball game. Take an online tutorial in something you enjoy. Allow time for fun activities that take your mind off of trust issues. Force yourself to detach at least a couple of times a week.
Chances are, everyone you speak with is sitting at a desk in a room full of cubicles. They are not going to be at their best, so be prepared with all of the important info you'll need to simplify their task.
• Use Post-It notes on your desktop as quick references to account numbers, social security numbers, phone numbers and frequent passwords. This is a big-time security risk, so do what you have to do to lock it down and keep this information safe from prying eyes. My home office has a keyed lock.
• Think about the information that agents and reps will need before you initiate contact. Have the file in front of you with all of the basic information written on the front of the file.
• Anticipate the questions they may ask. Think about the course of the dialogue, from beginning to end. Say, for instance that you want to check the status of your insurance claim. You will need the policy number, along with the name of the last agent you spoke with and the date of your last contact. You may be asked for the deceased's Social Security number and his/ her home telephone number. Have your file in front of you every time you speak with a representative. Paper clip and tab the most important documents so that the information is readily available.
• Keep it short. Clear and precise language is vital whenever you communicate, either in writing or on the phone. No one wants to hear your story. They only want the information they need to quickly answer your question.
• Know when to cut them off. If you feel that you are being led down a rat hole, and the know-it-all rep on the other end of the conversation is digging into facts that are none of his/her business, shut it down. End the conversation politely, but abruptly.
"You know, I don't have all of my facts in front of me. I'll call you back when I am more organized." Or, "I have to look into this further so that I have a better understanding. I will follow up with you later this week." Or, one of my favorites, "I have a call scheduled with our trust attorney. I will have to get back to you." Another favorite, "Oh, I'm sorry! I have someone at my door. I'll have to call you back. Buh-bye." Click. Don't pick up the phone when they call you back 5 minutes later.
GET ORGANIZED — PAPER RULES!
Good organization provides an effective defense whenever you are talking to account reps.
• Organize statements in chronological order from the most recent on top to the oldest in the back of the folder.
• Jot down notes and date everything. If you are engaged in an all-day pursuit in which every hour counts (dealing with time zone differences, for example), also note the time of day for each contact. Keep a log inside of every file so that you can quickly refer to the last conversation and the last person you spoke with. Write on the inside and back flaps of the folders. Always get the first and last name of a representative and his or her title so that you can bring the next rep, who has no idea what you are talking about, up to speed quickly and accurately.
• Use colored folders, files & tabs. My files are set up as follows: Red for taxes; yellow for health-related; blue for financial /brokerage; orange for stocks; green for trust bank account; multi for household accounts; pink for administrative expenses; and gray for organizational business (e.g. Veterans Admin, funeral home, real estate, etc.).
• Use good phone etiquette.
• Know how to write a good business letter, especially when you are dealing with overseas accounts. Check for spelling, grammar and punctuation before you send out a letter. Make sure that your letter is accurate and contains references to previous correspondence (e.g. reference numbers, account numbers, name of the deceased). Always sign off as "SUCTR" or Successor Trustee. Conservative investment orgs, insurance companies, and foreign accounts may not acknowledge the authority of a trust, so you'll need to sign as Executor of Estate (EOE) which works just as well to establish your identity. Every trust contains a pour-over will which names the executor.
• Having said that, don't be afraid to show your fangs, if necessary. If a rep is trying to intimidate or bully you, use your authority as Successor Trustee and Executor of Estate to stand up to him or her. It doesn't hurt to remind a playground bully that you are The Daughter of the 5th House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice, whatever. Just know what you are talking about and stop the interruptions and condescension. If that doesn't work, try "I give up," and hang up. Worked for me with a rep from Lincoln County.
Don't expect friends and relatives to always understand or be willing to listen to what you are talking about when you feel the need to unburden. Resist the temptation to share everything. Just get the job done.
Too much transparency is a bad thing because it can contribute to confusion, self-doubt, stress and group think. Consult with one or two close individuals, then make your decisions confidently, and be prepared to justify your reasons.
Keep in mind that the trust attorney is not your new best friend. Cc the trust attorney only on matters that have a direct legal bearing on administering the trust. I had to get ours involved when my dad's life insurance company refused to acknowledge the legal authority of the trust. We had to go to court to obtain an Order to Prove Will Without Administration. This was filed by our trust attorney's office, and I had to fax over the application paperwork.
LET OTHERS KNOW
If you are a successor trustee, ask for a copy of the trust including the Last Will & Testament before the trustee passes away. If you are a trustee, let the successor trustee know where he or she can find the complete document if you don't feel comfortable releasing a copy before you go to the Big Cloud in the sky.
[truhst] noun. 1. Reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing 2. Charge, custody or care 3. A person on whom or a thing on which one relies 4. The obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.
Remember that the authority to act on behalf of the trust grew out of a confident expectation that you could handle the job.