A cardinal rule of estate planning is that the “intent of the testator” governs terms of the will or trust. The testator is the person who initially “writes” the will; the name for the person who writes the trust is a “grantor” or “settlor.” Lawyers draw the documents up but testators or grantors are the original writer – our clients.
The terms of a will or trust are carried out by a fiduciary – an executor or a trustee. Fiduciaries are held to a higher legal standard of integrity because their roles are considered so important. So they can be sued if they do not follow the “intent of the writer,” so to speak.
Yet, though I try to remind them, folks tend to forget about the other fiduciary roles that also carry a kind of “intent of the writer” rule. Let’s consider a brother-best friend story.
Carrie was a single 35 year-old woman who, as a young teenager, witnessed her father die an agonizing death when he was stricken with a slowly debilitating and malignant brain tumor. So when Carrie got the bad news about her condition, she got her affairs in order and instead of designating her brother Don as the agent under her healthcare power of attorney, she named her best buddy, Tim. Carrie and Tim were just as close as Carrie and Don but they talked more openly about end-of-life issues ever since Carrie’s father passed. Carrie told Tim that she would never want to die in a hospital like her father and said she knew that she could count on him to fulfill her wishes.
Well, Carrie’s days started dwindling and Don pleaded with Carrie to go into the hospital or into a hospice facility. Carrie refused. From her spacious apartment, she could hear birds chirp and children laugh outside. The pain was tolerable and she could move around a little with a cane. Daily care was difficult and speaking was getting even more difficult, but she was staying put.
Then one day, Carrie couldn’t talk. Don pleaded with Tim now. Tim looked at his dear friend who had no appetite, occasionally winced at the pain, but smiled at the children’s laughter underneath her bedroom window. Don wanted Carrie in a facility to be watched 24/7 because he couldn’t do it and Tim could only be with her a few hours a day. Tim agonized because he understood Don’s concerns and really wanted the same thing. But Tim saw Carrie’s smile at the sound of the birds, recalled her horrific struggles with her father’s death, and when Carrie passed on, in her home wearing a slight grin, Tim was also at peace.
Healthcare decisions under a power of attorney include end-of-life decisions, and it’s not just about medicine. But the agent’s role, as a fiduciary, is to step inside the shoes of the principal and make the decisions the principal would make. Doing anything less, even if it means what we would perceive as more and a better quality at the end of life is going against one’s fiduciary duty, ignoring the cardinal rule.
So when you’re asked to be a fiduciary, think long and hard and then think again. How well do you know the principal’s shoes and can you stand to completely take yours off to walk in someone else’s?