Retirement Weekly

My sister is my parents’ trustee. How do I keep her on the straight and narrow?

‘How can I hold her accountable without being a jerk?’

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Dear Harry,

I’m concerned about my sister’s ability to settle my parents’ estate when the time comes. She’s a control freak and refuses to ask for help. In their trust, my parents name her as the successor trustee but state that they would like for us to do the work together. Mom died a year ago, and Dad has recently put himself on hospice care and resigned as trustee, so my sister is now handling all his business. He has all his marbles, just doesn’t want to deal with this world any longer. It is a large estate; we don’t even know how large really, because Dad has always been so private. More than half of it is being given to charity though, and the rest divided unevenly between three siblings and grandchildren. One specific concern is that my parents hold a private mortgage for my sister’s home, and it was never properly recorded. And there might be other loans to her and her husband that I’m not aware of. How can I monitor or hold her accountable without acting like a jerk?

​Dear reader,

​That’s a difficult situation, but you do have rights as a beneficiary of your parents’ estates and trusts. The trusts themselves may give you certain rights but so does state law. Many states have adopted the Uniform Trust Code, which provides significant rights to qualified beneficiaries, especially to know what is happening with the trust.

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Further, all trustees have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries. Where your sister may have a conflict of interest, she must err on the side of the beneficiaries rather than herself. But, of course, that does not mean she will. In addition, the lack of transparency that you anticipate breeds distrust. Even trustees and personal representatives who are doing nothing wrong are often suspected of misdeeds when they refuse to share information.

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Given the size of your parents’ estate and your concerns, I would not be too concerned about “acting like a jerk.” Retain a trust and estate attorney in the state where your parents lived to advise you and to keep an eye on your sister. That way you can keep it professional. It won’t be you asking questions, but your attorney. And your attorney can interact with your sister’s attorney, who will likely do their best to keep your sister on the straight and narrow.

If ultimately you do have to go to court to obtain the information to which you are entitled or to change trustees, you will have a much stronger case if you have a good record of efforts your attorney has already made to get results short of bringing a lawsuit.