Know Your People

“People”?  Yes you have “people”, we all have “people”.  So, who are your “people”?  They include, but are not limited to, the beneficiaries under your will and/or trust, beneficiaries of life insurance and retirement-type accounts, parties named to serve as executor or trustee, agents under your power of attorney and living will.  Yes, I can hear you saying “Sure I know them”.  And, I believe you that you do. 

However, I am referring to knowing them in a different manner – one that you know the correct name, the correct spelling, where the individual lives or if a corporate fiduciary, where they do business.  In some instances, you may need to know their Social Security Number. 

And why is this important?  Here are a few real life examples encountered in handling estates:

  • You always have referred to a friend as “Jack” during your friendship.  But “Jack” is a nickname, not his given name and he has no identification referencing “Jack”.   When Jack has to show identification as either an agent or a beneficiary, he has nothing; but he does have identification for his real name as “John”. 
  • This even goes one step further with “Sue”.  “Sue” might be a shortened form of “Susan”, but Susan doesn’t have any identification for Sue; only Susan.
  • Even better yet, you refer to someone as “Buddy” when the real name is Robert John. Since he was named after his father, there had to be some distinction.  In all reality, “Buddy” doesn’t exist.
  • Always have the correct spelling of names because an incorrect spelling can cause problems.  For instance “Debra” may really be spelled as “Deborah”.  Or one better, how many spellings are there for “Catherine”? “Catharine”, “Katherine”, Katharine”, “Kathryn”, “Cathryn”. You get my drift.
  • Be specific.  “Mary, my neighbor” really doesn’t provide sufficient information.  What happens if your neighbors change and by chance another Mary moves in next to you?  Would you want her to be a beneficiary?
  • Another example is a female name that does not reflect her married name.  Susan Smith is now Susan Jones.  All of her identification is in the name of Susan Jones but when she tries to act on your behalf, she has problem because of the name differences.  Sometimes presenting a copy of her marriage license will suffice; other times, it is not that easy.

It is likely that if you are revisiting your estate planning documents, you have an attorney who is attentive to detail and will require full names and complete identification of the parties.  However, the attorney cannot be held responsible for “Jack” really being “John” or “Buddy” really being Robert John.  Can they?  They don’t know Jack or Buddy.

Maybe you never realized you have “people”, but you do.  When naming them in legal documents, just make sure that you have properly named your “people”. 

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Kay Sowa

About the Author

Kay Sowa is a paralegal in the Trusts and Estates Group at Capehart & Scatchard, P.A. She is an IRS Enrolled Agent, an Accredited Estate Planner®, and a Certified Trust and Financial Advisor. She oversees the trust and estate administration practice for the firm. She is an accomplished author and lecturer who has frequently spoken on behalf of a number of organizations including the National Business Institute and the Institute of Paralegal Education.

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