Think Watergate, Wills, Trusts, Executors, Trustees, fees and Watergate have nothing in common? Think again.
All the President’s Men showed reporters Bernstein and Woodward frustratingly stymied as they tried to run down the story of a lifetime. At the low point of the Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate break-in, the reporters were contacted by the mysterious whistle-blower they came to know as ‘Deep Throat.’ Their first meeting was in an underground garage in downtown Washington, something that became one of cinema’s iconic scenes in the movie version.
The insider, played by the almost always in the shadows Hal Halbrook, generally spoke in half-riddles. But the one piece of advice he gave, the piece that pretty much brings down a presidency, is still quoted and still resonates today:
“Follow the money.”
It’s a simple piece of advice and something the reporters have completely overlooked, actually, haven’t even thought of. Most people don’t think to ‘follow the money’ when trying to figure out why people act the way they do. This is something we frequently have to explore and explain to clients dealing with trustees and executors.
Trustees and executors can act in a lot of different ways for a lot of different reasons, many of them a mystery to beneficiaries of all ilk.
Many times it about control. The trustees of the Samuel Beckett literary trust are eagle-eyed when it comes to his writings, particularly Waiting for Godot. From Broadway to the local high school, the play has to be performed exactly as specified in Becket’s original manuscript. A single variation in even the scenery can result in a cease and desist order.
The estates of David Bowie and, when finally settled, Prince, will have tight control on the release of their unreleased songs, probably for years. Andy Warhol’s estate has carefully controlled the sale of his paintings – the better to keep the prices high.
These are all acceptable and easily understood exercises of control. Every once and while, though, it’s becomes apparent that an executor or trustee is abusing their power. We recently posted on Facebook about the Frank Zappa estate. From his death in 1994 through to the death the first trustee, his wife Gail, in 2014 the estate ran smoothly and Frank’s son Dweezil toured the world playing his father’s music.
The new trustees, Dweezil’s brother and one of his sisters, immediately stopped him. One would think the reason is jealousy, but it’s tough to try to figure out the mindset of a trustee who suddenly becomes intransigent.
What about when money that’s due from the estate and/or trust is not as forthcoming as it should be? Well, then it’s time to follow the money.
Remember our post about J. Paul Getty a few weeks ago? One of the things we didn’t discuss was one of the sources of Getty’s wealth – the thing that allowed him to take some long risks with his money. Getty was the trustee of The Sarah C. Getty Trust – his mother’s trust, funded by his father’s vast oil and gas wealth. By the early 1960s, that trust was pushing $1 billion in value.
Getty was not a beneficiary of the trust, his children were, yet he was as parsimonious as if every dime spent came out of his pocket. Why? Because – follow the money – he was paid fees to manage the trust. The more the trust held, the more he was paid to manage it. He had a lifetime aversion to professional money managers so he didn’t share so much as a dime of fees with anyone while performing his duties.
We get this a lot, questions about why a trustee/executor is acting the way they are when it comes to monetary dispersals. It rarely occurs to anyone who hasn’t been there that they are paid to manage the estate. Most, of course, are nowhere near Getty, they want the estate closed or the trust managed efficiently and in deference to the deceased’s wishes.
But, some treat the funds as if they were their own money, which, come to think of it, a certain percentage is – in fees. And, that’s an issue.
If you’re dealing with a trustee or executor who is withholding funds, let us follow the money for you, please feel free to call a member of our team and schedule a consultation with our office.