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Financial Planning Insights

The Importance of the Conductor: Casting the Role of Trustee

By Joe Maier and Bob Schneider | Johnson Financial Group

6 minute read time


The right trustee has the same qualities of a great orchestra conductor: skill, objectivity, and empathy. While a musical composition directs what instruments play at what time and pace, a legacy plan directs how your assets are used, at what time and under what circumstances, to accomplish your objectives. You have worked your whole life to build the assets you can use to create your legacy and help maximize the happiness of those you care about most. Learn how working with the right trustee can help turn your composition into a work of art.

The Conductor: Blending Expertise, Objectivity and Empathy

When my youngest daughter, Lauren, was elementary school age, we were watching a television show with an orchestra. Lauren turned to me and asked, “Why is that man waving his arms around like a crazy person?” I explained that is the conductor, the leader of the orchestra. With the insight of an inquisitive child, she asked, “How is THAT leadership?” I had no answer. But she had me intrigued. So, I researched what, exactly, is the role of a conductor. And I found a very compelling description: the role of the conductor is to bring the composer’s musical composition to life.

That got me thinking. A conductor needs to objectively know the music, to understand what the composition should sound like. Just as important, the conductor needs to understand the composer and the artistry he or she is trying to convey. So what is the essence of a great conductor? A great conductor is a blend of skill, objectivity and empathy.

Picking a Trustee: Finding the Conductor of Your Legacy Concerto

A great trustee, the right trustee, has those exact same qualities. For the exact same reason. As a musical composition directs what instruments play at what time at what pace, your legacy plan will direct how your assets are used, at what time and under what circumstances, to accomplish your objectives. But a great composition also creates an emotional connection between the musicians and the listener. Likewise, a great legacy plan creates an emotional connection between the creator of the plan and the people he or she cares about—extending values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and connections that oftentimes pass between generations.

A great legacy plan creates a connection between the person who created the plan and later generations. Those that come later may have never met the creator but are connected to that person through the story the plan creates. Therefore, the person responsible for having the skill to deliver the plan flawlessly in a way that delivers the values and beliefs that a great legacy plan is built upon is a trustee who has a unique combination of expertise, objectivity and empathy.

Family vs. Professional

In casting that role, like a great conductor, a great trustee is hard to find. Start with the threshold question that most trust creators face: family member or professional?

At first blush, it would seem that neither could be the perfect choice. Take family members, first. If empathy arises from a deep and meaningful understanding of the grantor, family members, especially those that have spent time and had conversations with the grantor would appear to be the right choice. But will they be objective? The closer the relationship between the beneficiaries and the family member, the lesser chance of objectivity. Unless the grantor has an incredibly unique family member, that person will not have the expertise or objectivity of a professional trustee.

Professional trustees, on the other hand, administer trusts every day. They are the experts. Professional trustees should be completely objective. But can they achieve empathy, not having a close relationship with the grantor?

That’s an important question, and at first blush the assumption is legacy creators will need to make a tradeoff: either choose a family member and prioritize empathy or choose a professional and prioritize objectivity and expertise. But in my experience, no tradeoff is actually necessary. A professional trustee, if empathetic, is the best option. The question then becomes, how does a professional trustee achieve empathy?

Legacy Mission Statement as the Path to Perfect Empathy

A legacy plan is a strategy to take care of the people the creator cares about when he or she cannot. A good legacy plan gets the right property to the right people at the right time in the right way. It also empowers the right people to make the right decisions when the creator cannot. But a great legacy plan extends the client’s values and beliefs to allow the plan to tell the client’s story when the client no longer can. A good legacy plan includes wills, trusts and powers. A great legacy plan includes a Legacy Mission Statement.

"The Legacy Mission Statement is a collection of the client’s personal values and beliefs, and then clarifies how those values and beliefs should extend to economic decisions over the legacy assets."

For example, the client might believe that education is sufficiently valued if the student does not pay for it. Therefore, the trustee is empowered to lend trust assets to beneficiaries for education costs, but not pay those costs outright. Or, the client might value the role a parent plays in early stage development, and therefore, empower the trustee to replace the income of a beneficiary who elects not to work, but rather stay home with young children.

As you can see, a well-drafted Legacy Mission Statement creates a way for a trustee to have impeccable empathy. It is as if the composer included a document with the musical composition on what emotions should pervade during each part of a concerto, and what the audience should be feeling as each note is played.

Simply put, a thoughtfully crafted Legacy Mission Statement provided to a professional trustee makes that trustee more empathetic than a family member. That’s because while the family member can rely on experiences to determine what the grantor would have done, the Legacy Mission Statement removes the guesswork. It creates perfect empathy.

Conclusion: How Do You Deliver a Work of Art

You have worked very hard to build the assets you can use to help maximize the happiness of those you care about. The way to accomplish that goal is to create a legacy plan that lays out your values and beliefs, and then translate them into guidance for how those legacy assets should be used to maximize the happiness of your family. Then, you should choose a conductor with the expertise, objectivity and—armed with your Legacy Mission Statement—empathy to make your composition into your work of art.

by Joe Maier

Joe has extensive experience helping high‚Äźnet worth individuals, family offices, business owners and corporate executives meet their wealth and legacy goals. His areas of specific interest and skill include business succession planning, financial and estate planning, and wealth transfer strategies.


by Bob Schneider

Bob Schneider specializes in providing clients with the educational information and tools necessary to make informed decisions regarding their financial planning goals. He uses his financial planning experience to help individuals and families plan for and enjoy their retirement years.


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