The Moneyist: My sons are at odds after one abused the other 20 years ago. Should I appoint a third party as executor of my $1 million estate?

Dear Quentin,

I’m 75 years old and have $1 million, plus assets, in a trust for my two sons, but I need to do some updating. My sons are 45 and 44, but the younger child constantly complains about his brother’s abuse that occurred more than 20 years ago. 

I don’t deny that on several occasions the older brother may have restrained or even hit his younger brother, yet I am sure there was no regular pattern of abuse, and any altercations ended years ago. The elder brother has a very successful career, and my younger son has finally established a good career path of his own.

My dilemma is twofold. Because the oldest son lives nearby while his brother lives in a neighboring state, my oldest son is the executor of my estate.  

I am happily married, and should I go first, everything goes to my husband, who has no business experience and doesn’t even use the internet. Eventually, my estate will pass to my sons. Should I appoint an outsider as executor to lessen the chances of hard feelings between my sons?

Trying to Do the Right Thing

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Dear Trying,

Allow me to deal with the family and financial issues separately. 

Your younger son’s experience of abuse — physical and/or emotional — is his own, and the best thing you can do is listen and ask him how it makes him feel, what you can do now, and even what he believes you could have done better back then as parents. 

When someone recounts such experiences, it’s not a time to say, “Yes, but…” or say how it could always have been worse. You don’t know whether it was a pattern, and whether it was or not does not invalidate his experience or feelings about that experience now. 

You can support him and recommend he seek counseling about his childhood, but I caution you against minimizing what could be childhood trauma as “constant complaining.” He has a right to those feelings, whether or not his older brother takes accountability. 

Planning for unforeseen events

I agree with your instinct to appoint an independent executor to avoid any disputes after you’re gone. An executor has a fiduciary duty to act in the beneficiaries’ best interests, and is required to produce an inventory of the assets, cash flows, expenses, sales and other matters.

You could select a lawyer whom you may not know personally, but you could also consult with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils for help on selecting an executor of your estate.

You and your husband should make a will, which takes into account all unforeseen circumstances, such as one of you potentially becoming incapacitated. Gathering all relevant documents and financial accounts now will also help any executor in his or her job after you’re gone.

It sounds like you are wisely not leaving anything up to chance. 

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