Many times in Clearwater clients will not know whom to serve as their personal representative and/or trustee. Their family members may not be mature enough to handle those responsibilities, they may not want friends to “know their business,” they may not want to hire a corporate trustee, the assets may be too small to hire a corporate trustee or the client wants complete secrecy and does not want anyone to know their business except their CPA and attorney. There are a myriad of reasons why the “normal” trustee or personal representative may not be palatable to a client.
In our Clearwater law firm, our policy is that we may not suggest to our clients that they appoint an attorney in the firm as their personal representative/trustee. However, if a client asks, we are willing to undertake this responsibility. However, in accepting this responsibility, we want to explain certain ethical considerations to our clients and obtain our client’s written consent to potential conflicts of interest that could develop in connection with our firm’s attorneys acting as your personal representative or trustee.
The trustee of your Trust and the personal representative under your Last Will and Testament is charged with the responsibility to manage, invest, reinvest and protect the trust and estate assets; to prepare and file annual trust and estate income tax returns; to pay the taxes and expenses of administration out of the Trust and estate; and to distribute the trust and estate income and assets in the manner directed by your Trust and Last Will and Testament.
As an example, a personal representative is responsible to observe the same standards of care in the administration of a probate estate that are applicable to trustees. The most important duties of a personal representative are as follows:
Any trustee and personal representative should exercise good judgment, prudence, common sense, diligence, fairness, honesty and have reasonable skill and experience in the management of the types of assets which your Trust and Last Will and Testament comprises or the good sense to obtain assistance in connection with the management of those assets under the terms of your Trust and Last Will and Testament.
Others who might serve as your trustee or personal representative include a bank or trust company, your accountant, an investment advisor, a relative, a personal friend (who must be a resident of Florida to be a personal representative) or a business associate.
An attorney in the Linda Suzzanne Griffin, PA law firm in Clearwater, Florida can serve as your trustee and personal representative if this is your desire. However, several potential conflicts of interest may arise from such appointments which relate to the probability that our law firm will also serve as legal counsel for your Trust and estate.
A lawyer’s independence may be compromised when he or she acts as both trustee, personal representative and lawyer for the Trust or estate. The normal checks and balances which exist when two unrelated parties serve separately as trustee, personal representative and lawyer for the trustee and personal representative are absent.
Unless a court is asked to intervene, there may not be an independent, impartial review to determine if the trustee or personal representative are exercising an appropriate level of care, skill, diligence and prudence in the administration of your Trust and estate, and there may not be an independent impartial evaluation as to whether or not the fees and expenses charged by the trustee and personal representative, and the fees and expenses charged by the law firm, are reasonable. Other potential conflicts may arise which cannot be anticipated at this time.
The trustee, personal representative and the lawyer for the trustee and personal representative are entitled to compensation for services performed on behalf of your Trust and estate. When a lawyer has been nominated as personal representative, he or she can receive compensation for performing services as both personal representative and lawyer provided that he or she charges only once for services rendered, and provided the total compensation for serving as both personal representative and lawyer is reasonable.
If an attorney in our law firm in Clearwater serves as personal representative and trustee, then it is our practice to charge the Florida Statutory rate for personal representative fees, trustee fees and attorney fees. You can find the relevant statutes in Sections 733.617, 733.6171, 736.1007 and 736.0708 of the Florida Statutes. In addition to this compensation, our firm would also be entitled to reimbursement for all out-of-pocket expenses. All or substantially all of the personal representative fees and trustee fees will be tax deductible in some form to your estate, trust or its beneficiaries.
It is also our practice to engage our law firm to represent the named trustee or personal representative and to charge a percentage as provided under the Florida Statutes. Additionally, my firm is entitled to reimbursement for all out-of-pocket expenses. Anytime you wish to discuss fee arrangements under these scenarios we are happy to discuss same.
When individual fiduciaries are appointed it is not uncommon for a Trust or Will to include language relieving the trustee or personal representative from the obligation to post a trustee’s or personal representative’s bond for the faithful performance of his or her obligations, and language absolving the trustee and personal representative from liability for actions not involving gross negligence, fraud or bad faith. Also, in many cases, a Trust or a Last Will and Testament will provide that the trustee or personal representative is not to be charged with investment losses resulting from decisions made by the trustee or personal representative if the trustee or personal representative exercised reasonable care, diligence and prudence in making investment decisions.
When a Trust or Last Will and Testament nominates the lawyer who prepared the Trust and the Last Will and Testament to act as trustee or personal representative there is a potential conflict of interest if the lawyer incorporates provisions in a Trust and Last Will and Testament that relieves the lawyer from the obligation to post bond, or which absolve the lawyer from liability for his or her own actions. Our firm normally includes language that relieves the trustee and personal representative from any obligation to post bond and language which exonerates the trustee and personal representative from liability only for decisions made in the exercise of reasonable care, diligence and prudence.
It is your choice whether or not to waive the trustee’s and personal representative’s bond, and whether we include or exclude language exonerating the trustee and personal representative from liability as your trustee and personal representative.
Because our firm would have a conflict of interest in advising you with regard to the decision to nominate an attorney in our firm to act as trustee under your Trust and personal representative under your Last Will and Testament, and the inclusion or exclusion of language relieving an attorney in our firm of any potential liability, we always advise our clients to feel free to discuss these matters with another Clearwater attorney.
Ms. Griffin became a certified circuit court mediator in 2013 and is willing to help you with the mediation process. Lawsuits handled through the court system can be costly and time consuming. Mediation allows opposing parties to reach agreements that can be much more expedient and satisfying than a judge’s verdict. Mediation is a more informal process and is usually held in a less intimidating and non-adversarial atmosphere. Like judges, mediators are impartial and take off their “attorney” hat at the time of mediation. Unlike judges, mediators do not render verdicts. It is a mediator’s job to facilitate communication, narrow in on the issues, minimize the emotions, encourage the exploration of alternatives, and to assist in the parties coming to an acceptable agreement. The ideal outcome of any mediation is to have the parties come to a mutually satisfying resolution which avoids the need for further litigation fees. Advantages of mediation are time, cost and outcome.
Linda Griffin charges $350 per hour for mediation with the minimum of three hours. Please allow at least two weeks for scheduling and cancellations must be made 72 hours prior to the scheduled mediation. Cancellation after that time period will incur a $500 fee. Linda is available to conduct mediations at the Pinellas County Courthouse or at other convenient locations. Travel expenses will be charged.
Many times clients may find they need an independent person to review various legal documents and/or tax returns or other various documents. Ms. Griffin has had 38 years of experience as a Florida certified public accountant, working with Price Waterhouse in Atlanta and in Tampa. She worked as an auditor for 1 ½ years and in the tax department in Tampa for 1 ½ years. With her experience with a then “Big Eight Firm” and her masters in tax law, LL.M. and her J.D., she can review documents and perhaps give you a new perspective on those documents. Our firm has worked with other attorneys in various matters and in “fixing” situations which may arise after someone’s death.
An advantage of being “locals” and growing up in the Clearwater and Seminole areas, our attorneys have a unique ability to provide you with referrals in the area, not only in other areas of the law, but in other professions. We have dealt with professionals in the area for the past 26 years. We are always glad to provide referrals to make your life easier.
All of our firm’s employees are extremely organized and detail oriented. We hire individuals who are highly fact and follow through driven. If, at any time, you find yourself needing someone to help you get through all that paperwork or help you with any banking or document organization, then contact us. Under certain situations, while we never suggest acting, if necessary, an attorney in our firm can act as attorney-in-fact under your Durable Power of Attorney. We will be able to provide you with help at a rate less than our attorney hourly rate. We KNOW how hard it is to keep everything organized. We LOVE organization and details. We are here to help you!