I regularly counsel my clients to be careful about who they name as fiduciaries — personal representatives, trustees, attorneys-in-fact and health care agents. Many reflexively name a spouse. Some of my clients want to name their oldest child, thinking that this is “naturally” the role for that person. Others may want to name their favorite son or daughter.
Naming someone as your fiduciary is not doing them any favors — you are asking a loved one to take on what may be an time-consuming, thankless task — usually for no pay. I always tell my clients to talk to that person long before they ever sign the documents to be sure they are willing to take on the job.
I've learned from experience that sometimes does not happen.
Every estate planning and elder law attorney will sooner or later have a case where a named fiduciary elder turns out to be unsuitable for the task or simply did not want the job. That's one reason why well-drafted estate planning documents name back-up fiduciaries. So what if you're one of those reluctant or unwilling fiduciaries?
First,do you have difficult feelings about the person naming you? Be honest about this. No matter how well equipped you may be to handle the mechanics of the job, you may not be the right person if you harbor significant anger or resentment. This is particularly an issue where the person is still alive and you will have ongoing contact with him — for example where there is a familial history of alcoholism or emotional abuse by the parent. There is nothing shameful about admitting that you're just not the right person for the job. Give yourself permission to say “no” if you believe you will not be able to remove your unresolved feelings from the tax at hand.
Second, understand what is being asked of you. Ask to see the document naming you as fiduciary and read it. Can you candidly say that you understand the demands which will be made of you? Do you have a good, unemotional, understanding of your parent's situation and what the future may hold for her? Do you have the time and energy to do the job properly? If you understand the task and are truly able to do it, are you willing to identify and delegate tasks to appropriate helpers? Will you consult paid professionals to provide you with guidance and service as appropriate?
If you learn that a relative is thinking about estate planning, discuss your thoughts with her about who would be an appropriate fiduciary for them. If you don't think you're up for the task, say so. If there is no back-up and the relative no longer has capacity to nominate a new fiduciary, you may need to go to court to ask that someone else be named in your place.