Growing up, I was a big fan of Mad magazine, which the Internet indicates is still around: Assorted satires aimed at teens, along with those adults not wanting to become overly serious.
A favorite feature was “Scenes We’d Like to See”—vignettes that parodied the common conventions of that month’s particular target.
To my knowledge, trustees were never lampooned. Mad’s editors apparently missed a juicy target—but that doesn’t mean we have to. What follows is longer than a vignette, and any replication of the dialogue you remember from that oak-paneled encounter is purely accidental...
“Let Me Check the Manual”
TRUST OFFICER (TO): Good morning. Thanks for coming. As your late grandfather’s attorney told you, a trust has been established naming you as beneficiary and our bank as trustee. My name is Joe, and I’m your relationship manager.
BENEFICIARY (B): I’m amazed to have gotten here. What’s a relationship manager?
TO: Well, my responsibility will be to contact you now and then to see if you need any of our bank’s products, beyond the ones you already enjoy.
B: No, no—what I mean is: How does my trust work? Actually, what I really mean is: What do I need to do to obtain my inheritance?
TO: We’ll get to that in a moment. First, I have a few questions. How much are you paying on your mortgage? I think I can save you a couple of hundred bucks each month.
B: Excuse me?
TO: Seriously. You don’t want to miss this. And if you refinance your mortgage here, it will really help my sales scorecard.
B: I have a copy of my trust, and I don’t remember seeing anything about mortgages. But it does say I can get money for “health, support, and maintenance.” What does that language refer to?
TO: Beats me. I was transferred here only last month. My banking supervisor said this would be the right spot for me. Said I could re-apply to be a banker-in-training once I bring my scorecard up.
B: Isn’t there someone who can more directly help me? After all, I’ve never had a trust before.
TO: Let me check my manual [17-second pause and sound of pages turning]. Here it is! It says to tell you that: “We have the best support in the industry for important customers like you. Just call our 24-hour toll free trust hotline to be connected with an expert…”
B: Well—I do feel the need of a telephone hotline just now. But perhaps I need to look up the number for the State Banking Agglomeration on this iPhone and—
TO: No point in bothering. I vaguely recall my boss telling me that they helped write the thing I just quoted from...
At that point the Cone of Silence comes down—to protect both the innocent and the guilty, not to mention my editor.
Okay, so I really went over-the-top this month. But how else do I get your attention for a serious inquiry? Which is—Just what IS your routine for welcoming new beneficiaries? And how “welcoming” is it?
Maybe it’s like a trust officer described to me this afternoon: “Be as official and as formal as you can be. Respond succinctly and specifically to questions asked. Don’t make promises that extend beyond the letter of the document.”
I asked: “Why were you counseled to conduct yourself that way?”
His response: “Fear of liability.”
That was in a prior setting. He added that he left that institution to join another—where the norm was to have freewheeling conversations with beneficiaries.
For many beneficiaries, and not just first-timers, anticipation of meeting with a trustee can be a bit overwhelming. He’s likely to experience lots of emotions—anxiety, expectancy, curiosity.
So…what if the meeting is predominantly about the beneficiary?
Let’s Take it From the Top
TO: Good morning. Thanks for coming. As your late grandfather’s attorney told you, a trust has been established naming you as beneficiary and our bank as trustee. My name is Joe, and I’m your relationship manager.
B: How does that work?
TO: Well, I never knew your grandfather. But if I had to guess, he probably would want your trust managed in a way that enhances your life, not simply subsidizes it. So I hope to get to know you well over time. But first, I'd love to know—what kinds of things are on your mind? What puzzles you about your trust?
B: Pretty much everything. This is just so new to me.
TO:Three cheers for being candid—let’s make that a mutual habit! And it’s not like there’s a college course that covers being a beneficiary. So how about if you start by telling me what you think you know about trusts—generally—and about your trust in particular. That way, I can clear up any misconceptions. Then we’ll build upon what you already know…
And so forth.
The editor of Mad magazine for decades was William Gaines. When asked, he offered this view of Mad’s philosophy: “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”