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My family is all dead, and I never married or had children. I'm about as alone in life as one can be.
The new term for that is "elder orphan." There are millions of people like me. And, with roughly 491 baby boomers an hour turning 60, there will be a lot more.
The term highlights the dilemma one faces when they need help in managing their health, their finances, and the disposition of their estate. With no family or friends to name as trustee or executor, what does one do?
My lawyer told me I needed to hire a private fiduciary. That is someone who will step in, and take over, should I become unwilling or unable to handle my affairs. Someone to see I get medical attention when needed. Someone to carry out my final instructions when the time comes.
He gave me two referrals to fiduciaries he knew. The rest was up to me. His parting words were " Don't procrastinate. This should be an easy decision."
But it wasn't quick or easy. What is "easy" about turning your health, your money, and ultimately, everything you own, over to a stranger? It could be 10 years before I go from "standby" to actively needing help; or, it could be tomorrow. What is easy about any of it? And how do you make a decision like that quickly?
In fact, finding a fiduciary has turned out to be the most daunting, arduous, and important decision I have had to make at this phase of life.
My quest to find a fiduciary, like all journeys, began with the first step.
THE FIRST STEP
I honestly didn't know where to begin in hiring a private fiduciary. So I began with targeted research.
In Arizona, the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court licenses fiduciaries. There are 14 pages of public and private fiduciaries listed on the Court’s website. The site also lists all the complaints that have been filed, and their outcomes.
If you read through the site, you will glean a lot of useful information: how fiduciaries operate, their reporting obligations, and their internal policies and procedures.
When I checked the Court’s website, I verified that the two referrals I had been given, were licensed. I also learned they each had complaints filed against them. Although they were mostly minor in nature, it was important information to have.
I wanted more names to consider, so I searched the Internet for fiduciaries. I called estate planning lawyers, and asked whoever answered the phone, which fiduciaries they referred to.
A few names began to pop up repeatedly. I called them for interviews and looked at their company websites, but all my research left me feeling lost and overwhelmed.
THE SECOND STEP
I took some deep breaths, and acknowledged I had fears, concerns, and a lot of "what ifs." Who in their right mind wouldn't? Among them:
- How will I know the best one to hire?
- Will the person I interview still be working there when I need them?
- What if they stick me in some crummy group home and rob my estate?
- What if I have dementia and they take advantage of me?
- What about elder abuse?
- What if they get a doctor to say I'm crazy, but I'm not? Or I am!
- What if they force medications on me I don't want to take?
- What if they don't follow my instructions?
- What if I get injured at home?
- How will I get help if I can't use the phone?
- What if I die at home? Who will know or care?
- How do I trust a complete stranger?
- Have I done enough research?
- What else should I be considering?
THE THIRD STEP
Interview fiduciaries. I interviewed seven fiduciaries in six months.
Asking questions and interviewing people is an acquired skill. Most anyone can do it with a little practice. I’ve listed some of my questions below. You undoubtedly will come up with others for your situation, but hopefully these will serve as a guideline.
Here are the questions I learned to ask:
- How long have you been a fiduciary?
- What are your qualifications?
- What professional licenses do you hold?
- What local, state, or national fiduciary organizations are you a member of?
- How many clients do you have?
- How many work in your firm?
- What are their areas of expertise?
- What is your employee turnover rate?
- What is your succession plan?
- How often do you raise your rates? By what percentage?
- What are your current charges and fees?
- to open a file
- to keep me on "standby" status
- to administer services as an "active" client
- to mail a letter, send an email, or make a phone call
- to finalize my estate
- How do you keep in contact with me until I need your services?
- How will you know if I need your help?
- What if I am unable to contact you?
- Do you have three client references I can call?
- Have you ever had a complaint filed against you/your firm? For what? What was the disposition?
- What is the average size of the estate you handle?
- What happens to my pets?
- How will you get into my house?
- How do you store house keys or entry codes? My personal information?
- What is the average cost to close an estate of my size?
- What happens if my estate runs out of money?
THE FOURTH STEP
Making the decision—which I finally did after months of research and interviews, reviewing all of my notes, and sleeping on it for several days.
The fiduciary I decided to hire seemed head and shoulders above the rest. I felt OK with my decision and a sense of relief. But not really a sense of peace.
I informed my attorney of my decision, and he prepared the paperwork to make it official. I called and emailed the fiduciary to tell them they were hired. I asked what would happen now, and they told me the next steps they/we would take.
It is now several months later and not much has happened. I never completed their paperwork, and they haven’t contacted me to ask why. They don’t have my house keys or entry code.
Do I still think my decision was a good one? Yes.
THE FIFTH STEP (not yet taken)
There is still one more step: Appoint a trust protector.
That is someone who can "look over the shoulder" of the fiduciary, and has the power to fire them if necessary. It is someone who could receive medical reports and financial statements. Someone to monitor the performance of the fiduciary, and the fairness of their fees and charges.
Ideally, that person would be much younger than I am, someone willing to step in, and to keep an eye out. Someone who would be available in 10 years, or tomorrow.
It’s not easy to find someone like that. It is not something you ask of an acquaintance. Or of a friend's child or grandchild. I am concerned about this step. But hopeful, I will eventually find someone.
Because we don’t know how we’ll age, it’s critical to get all your paperwork and “team” in order before you need them. Hopefully, this article will make your “journey” easier.
Here is the three part video series. We hope you enjoy.
Jodi Weisberg is a retired attorney, former legal reporter, stand-up comic, pet sitter, and baby boomer. She wants to help other "elder orphans," and to educate attorneys, fiduciaries, and the public, about this issue. She received her MS and JD from the University of Arizona.