When someone creates a will or a trust of course they want to choose a dependable and trustworthy person as executor or trustee. For most people this means someone close to them—a family member or friend, or often the most responsible of their adult children. However, this often means that the person they’ve chosen as executor or trustee is also a beneficiary. The question that occurs is this: Is it a conflict of interest to be both executor/trustee and beneficiary?
As executor or trustee a person has a legal duty to manage the property in the decedent’s estate for the benefit of the trust or estate beneficiaries. This means that while the executor/trustee should be compassionate, he or she must act in an equal and unemotional manner toward ALL the beneficiaries.
A beneficiary, on the other hand, is often by definition emotional. Even those beneficiaries who are not concerned with the monetary aspect of their inheritance (and let’s be honest, many heirs are more concerned with the dollar amount than they might let on) will likely be emotionally invested in the heirlooms of the estate. Many family feuds are sparked when siblings can’t agree on who gets the family silver or great grandma’s engagement ring. And the potential for conflict only increases when real estate is involved.
If you are creating your will or trust, the best way to avoid this conflict is to be as specific as possible in your instructions to your executor and beneficiaries. Spelling out in no uncertain terms who gets the family silver will decrease the chances that the executor will be tempted to take advantage of his or her position. You may also want to consider naming a disinterested party as a trust advisor or co-executor to provide checks and balances throughout the administration process.
If you are a beneficiary who is also serving as executor/trustee there are a few things you can do to ensure you keep your executor and beneficiary roles separate:
* You may want to consider contacting a probate or estate planning attorney to mediate or oversee the process.
* Rely on random but fair methods (such as flipping a coin, drawing straws, or organizing a round robin) to distribute unassigned personal property with emotional value.
* Be sure to involve an impartial appraiser if real property is involved.
* If all else fails, an executor or trustee is always permitted to step down and hand the role over to a qualified and disinterested party.