When creating or updating an estate plan, part of the process involves the consideration of alternative decision-makers, such as financial or health care agents, trustees, and executors. For example, if you are creating a durable power of attorney, you will need to name an agent or agents to act on your behalf, primarily to make decisions of a financial nature. Invariably, parents consider naming children in these capacities. But how do parents decide which child or children? If the agents serve in a successive order, how do they decide what order? Often, parents simply look at birth order. And the most common first choice for parents is the firstborn.
But is this the best choice? Many studies have suggested that firstborns tend to be more intelligent, ambitious, and responsible than their younger siblings. Those certainly seem like advantageous personality traits for decision-makers. In fact, more than ½ of our American presidents were firstborns, including recent Presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush. However, President George H. W. Bush was a middle child (2nd of 5), and President Reagan was the youngest child (2nd of 2). Our February-honored Presidents are both considered firstborns, as Washington was the oldest of his mother’s children, and Lincoln was an only child.
Perhaps it is prudent to explore less arbitrary factors. When selecting a personal fiduciary to serve in a primarily financial role, such as an executor, trustee, or agent under a power of attorney, you should choose an individual with financial sensibility, responsibility, and loyalty. It is important to note that financial sensibility does not necessarily equate with financial ability. In other words, the person need not be an accountant, possess an MBA, or serve as CEO of a Fortune 500 company! Rather, the individual must be trustworthy and savvy enough to realize his or her limitations and “outsource” certain matters to a professional.
When selecting a health care agent, there are different factors to consider. After all, you may (or may not) want the fiscally conservative child to be making decisions about certain medical treatments. It may be more appropriate to appoint an individual who can both appreciate your wishes regarding medical care and possess the fortitude to implement those wishes.
Naming alternative decision-makers can be a difficult process. While the “birth order method” may have more merit than flipping a coin, parents truly should consider additional factors in order to make the most appropriate choice.
Jennifer R. Luitjens is Certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation, a non-profit organization accredited by the ABA. She lives in Jericho and practices in South Burlington with the Jarrett Law Office. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute comprehensive or specific legal advice. The author stresses the need to engage appropriate legal and financial professionals when devising your individual estate plan.