Cathy interviews Sara Ecklein, a private, professional fiduciary and founder of Trust and Honor in the San Francisco Bay Area.
[00:03:13] Cathy Curtis: Hi, Sara. Thank you so much for joining me on my podcast, Financial Finesse. This is a topic that I’m really intrigued about as I’m a financial advisor. And I believe you’ve told me that your industry is in its infancy. So, I want to learn as much as I want to share things with our listeners, so thanks.
[00:03:40] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, Cathy, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
[00:03:45] Sara Ecklein describes the role of a private, professional fiduciary.
[00:03:45] Cathy Curtis: Great. So let’s get started with some basics. Can you describe what exactly is a private, professional fiduciary?
[00:03:56] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so we’re in the state of California. So California is one of few states that has a license, but specifically for private professional fiduciaries that came about, I believe in about 2007.
[00:04:13] Sara Ecklein: Licensing became required in 2009. So that’s where this work has been done for very long. But in terms of licensing, it’s fairly new to the state and we’re one of only few that do have licensing.
[00:04:30] Cathy Curtis: Interesting. So just stepping back, so there’s a distinction here. It’s the private part, right? Because there’s always been corporate professional fiduciaries, is that.
[00:04:42] Sara Ecklein: Yes. And even the term like fiduciary, a family member, a non-professional can be acting in that role. So that’s where we really like to have that professional, the private professional piece in front of the fiduciary name, just making it clear the relationship.
[00:04:58] Cathy Curtis: Okay, that makes sense. And why is it that some states do not have this licensing?
[00:05:07] Sara Ecklein: I really can’t answer that. But California is steps ahead of most. So there’s the National Guardian Association and that I would direct people if they’re looking for a professional fiduciary and they’re not in the state of California, that would be a place to start.
[00:05:26] Cathy Curtis: Okay, great. So tell me your journey to becoming a private, professional fiduciary.
[00:05:34] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so I came to this work fairly young. My path really started feeling very cold towards serving an end-of-life care. I was with a loved one during her last three days of life, and I just felt this overall sense of calling and leaning into supporting her through the dying process. And so I really considered, I thought I was going to be a hospice nurse. So that’s really where my kind of career began to take shape and form.
[00:06:07] Sara Ecklein: I already had a bachelor’s degree, so it was looking like I was needing to go back to school, and I went and got my nursing assistant license just to get my feet wet. And make sure before going back to school, that would be the right path. And I’m happy I did that because I quickly realized that nursing wasn’t quite the right fit.
[00:06:28] Sara Ecklein: And eventually my path led me to working in a private fiduciary’s office out in Sacramento. And really the rest is history. I fell in love with the work. It really combined a lot of my personal strengths and interests. I really described it as like a head and heart alignment of very engaging work. Every, every client is unique, and there’s absolutely always that piece of being of service and making a difference.
[00:06:56] Sara Ecklein: And of course, there’s always that thread going through every case at the end-of-life care. So even if it’s before someone passes, I work with clients in the planning phase. And so it’s really building the relationship long before they need a professional fiduciary to act. But it’s really supporting families and planning.
[00:07:19] Sara Ecklein: And then of course, I do support clients through that transition, acting as agent for healthcare, also as their trustee power of attorney, and then after they’ve passed, really being the one that’s entrusted to carry out their final wishes.
[00:07:36] Cathy Curtis: This is a major responsibility. It is fascinating to me because that’s, that is a lot of different roles that you take on for the individual.
[00:07:45] Cathy Curtis: It crosses the spectrum. And I’m wondering, so how does a client find you generally speaking?
[00:07:55] Sara Ecklein: For the most part, they’re finding me. They’re either referred to me by their attorney, their estate planning or elder law attorney, or through other professionals like yourself. Occasionally a CPA will send their clients come tax time to me. But for the most part it is through estate planning attorneys is where clients are connected to me.
[00:08:19] Cathy Curtis: Okay. So is your clientele mostly a wealthy clientele?
[00:08:26] Sara Ecklein: Not always. I would say there of course needs to be a certain amount of assets. Otherwise getting connected with the public guardian is usually where I direct people if they really don’t have many assets. But they do need support with managing affairs.
[00:08:43] Sara Ecklein: In the Bay Area, it is hard because middle classes seeming like much larger estates now. But typically, I have a minimum of about $500,000 in assets to engage my services.
[00:09:00] Cathy Curtis: Okay, that makes sense. And then it sounds like you act as a resource for those people who don’t have the asset level, and you refer them to other resources such as the public guardian.
[00:09:16] Sara Ecklein: Yes, absolutely. And a lot of times at that point it might not even be the client themselves reaching out to me. It might be a family member, even an attorney reaching out to me asking, “Who do you know or who can help?”
[00:09:28] Sara shares why and when someone may seek her services as a private fiduciary and what her intake process looks like.
[00:09:28] Cathy Curtis: Okay. Now, in many cases, family members just take on this role, the roles that you take on, right? So is it mostly single people that contact you, or is it a family member that says, “Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to do all these things. I need help.” What happens?
[00:09:54] Sara Ecklein: It’s a combination. I do have many clients that they really don’t have any family living. Maybe they never married, they never had children, and now they’re in their eighties and they’re beginning to decline and need some support.
[00:10:11] Sara Ecklein: But I also have plenty of people that have families and are married. And I’m thinking in the situation of planning, I work with a lot of couples where they’re planning in the event that one of them has passed and the other one’s incapacitated. Sometimes they have children and sometimes they don’t. If their children don’t live locally, and we’re seeing this more and more, families are living further.
[00:10:37] Sara Ecklein: That doesn’t really help when you know mom or dad need that hands-on support, setting up bill pay and care management and all of that. It can be really a full-time job.
[00:10:49] Cathy Curtis: Yes, definitely. It really can. Yeah, and, and it’s, in many cases, I’m sure children are busy with their own lives, their own children, careers, and they want the support.
[00:11:01] Sara Ecklein: So that’s, that, and then we’re also seeing divorces and then second or even third marriages and these blended families.
[00:11:09] Sara Ecklein: It can be really helpful to just have a neutral party act in the role of trustee so that no one’s feeling like they’re taking sides or playing favorites. And it can just make things much easier when it is time to administer the trust.
[00:11:27] Cathy Curtis: Okay. So in that case, you do not get involved in the affairs until the trusteeship is triggered, which means someone dies or gets very ill.
[00:11:41] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. Typically, it just depends on the documents, but for the most part it’s at the time of incapacity or death.
[00:11:50] Cathy Curtis: Okay. Depends. Let’s take, I’m gonna just give an example situation. Let’s say there’s a single woman in her eighties, lives alone, is in fairly good health, but is thinking towards the future. Family members have died, and she contacts you and says,
[00:12:11] Cathy Curtis: “I’m not quite sure what’s gonna happen with my health in the next few years. And what can you do to help me make sure my affairs are in order and I’m taken care of?” What would your response be and what’s your process?
[00:12:25] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. When I start working with clients in that phase, I do require that they’re already working with an estate planning attorney.
[00:12:33] Sara Ecklein: Most of them already have, and they are working with their attorney. Their attorney is the one that’s advising them that you really need to get someone in this place. You need to name them in your documents. If they’re not working with an attorney, that’s gonna be my first requirement and step that if they wanna work with me.
[00:12:53] Sara Ecklein: You need to find yourself an estate planning attorney. So in those roles, this scenario you laid out, it sounds like this woman is going to need help, not only with her finances and bill pay and acting if she lacks capacity and is needing support while living. And also needing potentially a trustee if she has enough assets.
[00:13:15] Sara Ecklein: But she’s also going to be needing support with healthcare decision making. So typically, I’m named in all three roles, successor, trustee, durable power of attorney and agent for healthcare in the advanced healthcare directive. So once I have a consultation with a client and we both feel like it’s the right fit, I have a pretty thorough intake process.
[00:13:41] Sara Ecklein: It does include reviewing a draft of their estate planning documents, of course, and getting copies of all signed documents once they have been executed. And then I have my own intake forms that are pretty thorough and in depth that’s not only gaining information from them about the actual trust assets.
[00:14:03] Sara Ecklein: But it’s really gathering information about them as a person. And as a fiduciary, I like to plan in the event of all the scenarios of when I’m going to get involved. And more times than not, I’m getting involved in the event of incapacity. It’s not death. Most people don’t just pass away in their sleep.
[00:14:24] Sara Ecklein: It’s a subtle, slow decline over typically many years. In that situation, I’m really working alongside the client. And supporting them.
[00:14:35] Cathy Curtis: And when you say, just specifically when you say supporting them and working alongside them. So during this phase where they’re still healthy and not incapacitated, do you set up regular meetings with them or touchpoints of some kind?
[00:14:52] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so I have annual drumbeat that I like to have a check in phone call and just make sure nothing’s changed on their end. I also see it as a time for me to update them on myself and my business. The profession. For professional fiduciaries, we have to be named individually and document as much as I have. A business, Trust and Honor, that business can’t be named in any of those roles that we outlined before.
[00:15:20] Sara Ecklein: Successor trustee, durable power of attorney, agent for healthcare. I think it’s important to continue that relationship and keep them up to date on where am I with the business and also where are. I found that over the years we don’t have that check in. People update their phone number, they move, they even update their estate planning documents, and a lot of times the successor trustee isn’t kept up to date.
[00:15:48] Sara Ecklein: So that’s where I find that’s really crucial and important. And then I really leave it up to the client to book a consultation on an as needed basis. So sometimes, significant change going on in their life, or maybe they’re making significant changes to their estate planning documents. They can always initiate scheduling an hour consultation with me and just going through the changes they’ve made.
[00:16:16] Cathy Curtis: Okay. Now, as far as the licensing, the role you take on is a very personal role. As trustee, it basically gives you complete authority over your clients’ assets and everything. So what kind of, what happens with the licensing? A big background check, all those things. But could you talk to that a little bit?
[00:16:45] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so we’re licensed through the Professional Fiduciary Bureau. It’s a branch of the Consumer Affairs in the state of California. So our license renews every year, which is I think is much more frequent than most professional licenses. And we have to report how much, how many assets are under management, how much we’re really controlling, and the types of cases and the number of cases.
[00:17:11] Sara Ecklein: So for my practice, I don’t specialize in conservatorships or any kind of court supervised cases. Some fiduciaries that’s really heavy in their practice. So there’s, the bureau really is asking us every year, how many conservatorships do you have? How many powers of attorney do you have? How many probated states do you have?
[00:17:36] Sara Ecklein: How many trusts do you have? And then if you’re managing any funds for those clients, the total of them.
[00:17:44] Cathy Curtis: Okay, let’s talk specifically about managing funds. So in this part I’m really curious about, and I am an investment advisor, a registered investment advisor, and some of my listeners will be other financial advisors and probably will have similar questions.
[00:18:03] Cathy Curtis: Can you actually manage assets, meaning buying and selling securities?
[00:18:10] Sara Ecklein: No, I don’t. I really, my license doesn’t allow for me to give legal advice, tax advice. I’m not a financial professional, so I’m really working alongside a team. Come tax time, I’m working with a CPA to file the trust tax return of the client’s tax return.
[00:18:32] Sara Ecklein: I also am typically working alongside an investment advisor, so they’re the ones that’s really managing the portfolio.
[00:18:41] Cathy Curtis: All right, so let’s take this. This woman, this 80ish woman who did have an estate attorney because she is the one that referred to you, okay? This woman doesn’t have an investment advisor, but she has two million at Vanguard. Let’s say in that case, what happens?
[00:19:06] Sara Ecklein: It depends if the client still has enough capacity to communicate her wishes. Sometimes clients prefer that I continue that relationship and working with the financial advisor of their choosing. If not, if there maybe A) isn’t a preference, or B) I’m fully acting and this person really is not able to communicate their wishes, then I likely will be moving the account to a financial advisor that I work with regularly.
[00:19:35] Sara Ecklein: And I do that for several reasons. One of the pieces is that there is an efficiency to this. And wearing the fiduciary hat, I’m definitely trying to preserve the trust assets. My time does equate to fees. So that’s where, if I’m working with only, if I’m working with a financial advisor and there’s a handful of cases we can go through a quarterly or semi-annual review fairly quickly versus working with 20 different financial advisors, all of my clients choosing.
[00:20:12] Cathy Curtis: So that really makes sense. Okay. In the case of A, let’s say I referred you a client. You have the option to say, “Thank you for referring me the client, Cathy, but I need to run my practice efficiently. And I have a financial advisor that I work with.”
[00:20:33] Sara Ecklein: That is true. I think what helps, the other piece is that, especially with the financial services industry as there’s different types of advisors. And so a lot of clients are working with broker dealers. I find that’s, I end up having a conflict as a private fiduciary because I know that broker dealers are held to a different standard, not to that fiduciary standard that an investment advisor.
[00:21:00] Sara Ecklein: So that’s another reason where my preference is to work with financial advisors that I’ve already vetted and screened and they understand the standard that I’m held to, which private fiduciary are held to the Uniform Prudent Investors Act. We usually just call it the UPI. And so the financial advisors that I work with are familiar with that standard and would be diversifying the portfolio with that in mind and keeping that in mind as I’m acting as trustee or power of attorney.
[00:21:36] Cathy Curtis: Okay, that, that really makes sense to me. I’m a fiduciary advisor, just for example, a CFP, member of NAPFA, which is the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, and need to be a fiduciary as a registered investment advisor. So I would be the type of advisor that you would probably feel more comfortable working with.
[00:22:00] Cathy Curtis: Because I’m a fiduciary. Versus a broker dealer or a professional from one of the big banks, et cetera, that I’m not saying they’re not good advisors, but they are not held to that same standard.
[00:22:16] Sara Ecklein: That’s correct, yes. I recently had a consult, I believe it was last week, and this client really communicated her wish of continuing that relationship.
[00:22:27] Sara Ecklein: What’s great is we’re again working in the planning phase, and so I’m able to make note of that, that this really is her preference, and I’m also able to ask the questions. Look up this, this person’s license, and it’s very clear she is that kind of fee only fiduciary financial advisor. And so that already brings me some level of comfort just knowing that they, they’re held to that same fiduciary standard.
[00:22:53] Cathy Curtis: Yeah. So interesting. And I’m sure I’m not the only financial advisor that this happens to. Because I, like you, I have long-term relationships with my clients, and I get to know them very well. And some of them don’t have family or family they trust, and so they think that Cathy knows me really well.
[00:23:20] Cathy Curtis: She knows all my financial circumstances. She’s the obvious choice to be trustee and healthcare or financial power of attorney. And in my industry, that is a complete, not a complete, no-no. You can do it, but you have to do, you have to form a different kind of business and be willing to be audited every year and lots of regulatory hoops to go through.
[00:23:47] Cathy Curtis: So I’ve chosen not to do that. I do not want to take on that responsibility. So in my case, I many times need to find somebody for this client who wants a person to act in these roles, and it’s been a challenge for me. And so I was really glad to, I forget now how I was introduced to you.
[00:24:13] Sara Ecklein: I believe it was Ruth connected us.
[00:24:16] Cathy Curtis: Oh, okay. And then I came to find out from you the industry hasn’t been around that long, and then it made sense to me. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been so easy to find somebody.
[00:24:29] Sara Ecklein: With professional fiduciaries, it’s, it is a pretty, there’s not a ton of us. I believe there’s less than a thousand actively licensed fiduciaries in the state.
[00:24:41] Sara Ecklein: So we’re a pretty small profession. That being said, a CPA, an attorney, their license allows for them to act in this role. So it’s not counting those professions.
[00:24:58] Cathy Curtis: Do you think most want to do that work in addition to their core?
[00:25:10] Sara Ecklein: I find more times than not, they’re not wanting to act in those roles for many different reasons. But yeah, trust administration, it is, there’s a lot of practicalities and things are always changing, so I could see more.
[00:25:26] How working with a private, professional fiduciary can benefit clients when it comes their healthcare.
[00:25:26] Cathy Curtis: Yeah. Not only the trust administration, it sounds like you get involved in healthcare. Talk about that a little bit.
[00:25:32] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. I actually think that’s really one of the benefits of working with a professional fiduciary. Our license allows for us to act in this role. From my understanding, like a corporate trustee, they cannot act in the role of agent for healthcare or even power of attorney.
[00:25:56] Sara Ecklein: If someone, this model client you’re describing, a single woman, really very little family or friend support, and she’s needing someone to act in all those roles. She could name a, like a bank. Let’s just use the example of Wells Fargo as her successor trustee. But that still doesn’t solve the problem of who’s going to act in those other roles.
[00:26:20] Cathy Curtis: So your job is very unique in that way. It really is.
[00:26:24] Sara Ecklein: Yes. And I, for me, I love the kind of blend of the work of working from the financial piece and working with the numbers and the administrative side, but also really working with people and serving people. And that healthcare piece. When you’re acting in all of those roles, I find serving clients, it becomes that much more special of a relationship. Because you really get to know your clients very well.
[00:26:52] Cathy Curtis: Can you describe a situation where you had to get involved with the healthcare situation just to illuminate what you do.
[00:27:03] Sara Ecklein: Yes. So I actually started working with a client about two, two years ago, maybe a year and a half ago. Her attorney referred her to me. She was having a medical crisis.
[00:27:19] Sara Ecklein: Going in and outta the hospital, going home, falling, going back to the hospital, getting discharged 20 days later.
[00:27:29] Cathy Curtis: And not unusual that, and this will happen probably to most of us when we get older. Right?
[00:27:34] Sara Ecklein: Yes, hopefully not, but yes. This is not unusual, unfortunately at this point in time.
[00:27:43] Sara Ecklein: And she’s a lot of kind of what you were describing with this model client or sample client. She really has no family and never married, no children, and she really needed to have someone to step in and quickly figure out what’s going on with her medically and communicate with the medical providers. Because memory loss was beginning to be a factor in in her care.
[00:28:10] Sara Ecklein: Thankfully, she had enough capacity to sign documents, name me her power of attorney for both finance and healthcare. And I really hit the ground running for a while. I was, we were meeting a minimum of once a week, if not twice a week. Because she was having a full on healthcare crisis on top of like a financial crisis because her bills were unpaid for about eight months.
[00:28:35] Sara Ecklein: And so I was figuring out what’s going on. Where are the assets? What does she have, what are the bills that she actually owes? What can I argue and bring down and remove fees? And then beginning to work with her team. At that point, she had been placed at an assisted living facility.
[00:28:58] Sara Ecklein: At least her day to day, she was now much more safe than going back home. But it required a lot, and I don’t wanna share too much about her. But I was working with a lot of specialists and going back, asking for medical records. Because she really didn’t have anything and couldn’t really remember what was being advised.
[00:29:23] Sara Ecklein: So it was a lot of working alongside her primary care physician who was wonderful and going back and figuring out and putting the pieces together and getting her a formal diagnosis, figuring out a care plan. Also beginning to work and figure out what is her budget, because at that point her income was very low, and her expenses were just very high because of the medical.
[00:29:51] Cathy Curtis: That’s incredible. Just think about how many roles you took on just in this situation.
[00:29:58] Sara Ecklein: Yes. No, it was a lot.
[00:30:01] Cathy Curtis: Yeah, it was a lot. And this person waited for a crisis. The crisis triggered hiring you, right? Is that the case a lot of the time, or do people hire you long before they get to that point?
[00:30:20] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. And really, so for me, I’m a very young private fiduciary, and I would say that really stands out for me. I’m in my mid-thirties and there’s very few professional fiduciaries in their thirties and forties. I believe the average age is actually over 60 for the profession. Don’t quote me on that.
[00:30:41] Cathy Curtis: That sounds, I wouldn’t be surprised. That’s like the financial advisor, independent financial advisor, although that’s changing. There’s a lot more younger people coming in now.
[00:30:53] Sara Ecklein: Yes. Yeah, so I work a lot with clients in the planning phase because of my age. Obviously, someone who’s a seasoned fiduciary in their sixties.
[00:31:04] Sara Ecklein: If there’s an immediate need, they can do a great job. But if someone is planning and doesn’t need a fiduciary in 10, 15, 20 years, that doesn’t really help the client. Someone nearing retirement. So that’s where for my practice, I work a lot with clients in the planning phase. I really love it because you build the relationship long before services are needed.
[00:31:32] Sara Ecklein: And so it’s a slow progression, and I find that’s a wonderful way of getting to know people, building that trust in those situations. Because typically, as much as we can do planning, crises still occur. And these situations and these scenarios, it’s hard to navigate. But it makes it so much easier if you’ve built that relationship over the years versus someone that you’re just meeting now.
[00:31:57] Sara Ecklein: And we’re still able to do it, but that, building that trust and building that relationship can take time. And if you’re losing capacity and losing memory loss and so many things can be lost and that can be hard for anyone to just accept and understand.
[00:32:23] Cathy Curtis: I think denial is a normal part of that process. I see that all the time with my older clients. Nobody wants to admit that they’re losing their memory and people clinging on to things like being able to drive and being able to go out independently and all those, they don’t wanna give it up.
[00:32:39] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, I see that a lot. So it does make it easier to have those conversations when we’ve known each other for a long time.
[00:32:49] Cathy Curtis: Let me, let’s segue to your business, like business model. This, I’m curious about this. So it, it sounds to me like you probably have several clients that are years away from needing you full-time.
[00:33:07] Cathy Curtis: Meaning you’re the trustee. All that’s triggered. And in the meantime, you’ve onboarded them as a client. You have developed a way to touch base with them periodically, but how are you paid during that time and is that an issue for someone with a business like yours?
[00:33:27] Sara Ecklein: Hasn’t presented an issue for me yet.
[00:33:30] Sara Ecklein: For me, I really charge a one-time flat fee of a thousand dollars to go through my intake process. And that’s going over what we discussed before, reviewing a draft of their documents. Sometimes I need a few edits on my end, and so I’m communicating directly with their attorney on those changes that I would require and if they wanted me to act in the role of trustee, power of attorney agent for healthcare.
[00:33:58] Sara Ecklein: And once we get through that, and the intake forms are complete, and then I follow up with a consultation to go over any questions that I may have, or they may have. And that, so that all covers my intake process. And I’m really essentially creating a file for clients long before they need me. But ongoing, I really don’t charge a fee unless, I just leave it as you can book a consultation with me on an as needed basis.
[00:34:30] Sara Ecklein: And I would just charge my hourly rate. But that’s really, if the client has capacity and they’re doing well, I’m not, I’m not initiating. That’s really coming from them.
[00:34:42] Cathy Curtis: Okay. That makes sense. And tell me again, how long have you been doing this for?
[00:34:46] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, I’ve been doing this work, I started working in the profession in 2014, so I’m approaching about nine years. And I went off on my own about two years ago.
[00:35:02] Cathy Curtis: Congratulations. That must have been an exciting moment.
[00:35:05] Sara Ecklein: Yes, it was. It was all during the pandemic. But yes, I worked for two well established fiduciary agencies before going off on my own and really learning from just, I’ve had amazing mentors along the way. So that has definitely helped me and in my practice.
[00:35:24] Cathy Curtis: And it sounds like there’s an association too you can use for mentorship roles and things like that.
[00:35:32] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. The Professional Fiduciary Association of California, we usually just call it PFA. That’s a wonderful place also just for consumers to go if they’re looking to find a professional fiduciary.
[00:35:45] Sara Ecklein: You can search based on location, and you can also search based on what service you might need specifically.
[00:35:56] Cathy Curtis: That brings up another question. And the pandemic changed a lot of things. For example, I, most of my clients prior to the pandemic were local clients, and I would see them in person periodically through the year.
[00:36:08] Cathy Curtis: Then the pandemic hit, and of course we all switched to Zoom. And I’m doing most of my meetings over Zoom now. And I also found that clients from other states started to contact me and I was able to take on those clients because it’s so easy now to build a relationship over Zoom.
[00:36:30] Cathy Curtis: Everyone’s used to it. In your case, how does that work for you? Do you still mostly work locally, or have you expanded into a broader audience?
[00:36:42] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, for the most part. Most of my clients are in the Bay Area,. So I’m based in Silicon Valley. I do have a pretty big reach, I think, throughout the Bay Area, going all the way from Marin County, Alameda Contra, Costa County.
[00:36:58] Sara Ecklein: I do have a few clients where they do live outta state. But I will preface it, it’s not really the client who’s still living. I’m really interfacing with a beneficiary that lives out of state.
[00:37:12] Cathy Curtis: Okay, so that’s different. And do you still meet most of your clients in person in the beginning of the relationship?
[00:37:19] Sara Ecklein: No. More and more now I’m doing phone and Zoom consultations.
[00:37:24] Cathy Curtis: Okay, so similar.
[00:37:26] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, similar and definitely with clients in the planning phase. That’s, my whole intake process is it’s all virtual and if clients want me to come out and do a home visit, then that’s something that would be an additional kind of fee in charging an hourly rate for me to come out to the house.
[00:37:44] Cathy Curtis: Okay, that makes sense. And can you describe who your ideal client would be? I know we all have an ideal client, the kind of person that we like to work with, that we know we have the expertise to help. And you probably have one too, and that fits your business model and all of those things. Could you describe that person?
[00:38:07] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so there’s, I have a few. So, you know, one ideal kind of client is really a couple and they’re working in the planning phase. So I love this because they’re already working with a, typically a team of professionals. Typically, they already are working with a financial advisor. They’re already working with an estate planning attorney, and now they’re looking for professional fiduciary.
[00:38:32] Sara Ecklein: So I’m just one more kind of professional to add to their team and supporting them with their planning. I love couples like that because I find that they’re proactive in thinking ahead, and that’s really where I love to serve. I also am building the relationship and I’m more of a, almost like a consultant in a way. Because again, it’s long before they need me. And I find that those relationships just become that much more rewarding and enriching when they’re over the years and getting to know them and oftentimes their family.
[00:39:09] Sara Ecklein: Whoever that may include. And then I also specialize in an area called special needs trust. We haven’t really touched on that much during, during this phone call or interview.
[00:39:20] Sara Ecklein and Cathy discuss special needs trusts and why it can be helpful to have a trustee who specializes in this area.
[00:39:20] Cathy Curtis: Oh yeah, let’s talk about that now. That’s an important area.
[00:39:23] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. Special needs trust. The world of private fiduciaries is already pretty niche, and then it just gets that much smaller when it comes to special needs trusts.
[00:39:36] Sara Ecklein: There’s different types, and I don’t want to go down too much of a rabbit hole into detail. But what it tells me is that this, the beneficiary of the special needs trust is most likely receiving some sort of public benefit and for whatever reason, whether it’s the family or this beneficiary is about to receive money out.
[00:40:01] Sara Ecklein: We’re needing to preserve that public benefit. Either family can establish the special needs trust. This is called a third-party special needs trust. Sometimes there’s something like a medical settlement and the special needs trust will be established with a court order. That’s typically considered a first-party special needs trust.
[00:40:23] Sara Ecklein: But anyways, that’s an area that I do specialize in.
[00:40:27] Cathy Curtis: So when you say specialize, so an attorney sets up the special needs trust, right?
[00:40:33] Sara Ecklein: Yes. And then I would be named as trustee for that trust. Yeah, so I, my background, I managed public benefits for the fiduciary agency I worked at prior. So I did that for about six years and I really was the point person interfacing with Department of Social Services, Social Security Administration, and really advocating to maximize the client’s public benefits.
[00:41:04] Cathy Curtis: That’s an excellent and important niche to be in. And would you, how big a part of your business is that?
[00:41:10] Sara Ecklein: It’s about half at the moment. For my active cases, a lot of clients will be named as the families for the revocable living trust. So Mom and Dad’s Trust and then their trust will eventually fund the special needs trust. And so I’ll also be named in that.
[00:41:33] Sara Ecklein: It’s hard for me to say, but I get a lot of referrals also for families with disabilities because they’re planning that their child will most likely always be receiving some sort of public benefit.
[00:41:47] Cathy Curtis: So you must have built up a reputation as an expert in this area.
[00:41:52] Sara Ecklein: Yes, I think so. It really, with administering a special needs trust, there’s a lot of rules and you really need to have a good understanding of public benefits and the specific public benefits that the beneficiary’s receiving. Because that’s going to directly relate to how you administer that trust.
[00:42:12] Cathy Curtis: And can you give an example of a mistake a person can make if they don’t know all the rules?
[00:42:19] Sara Ecklein: Oh yeah. A lot of times I have taken over from non-professionals, or I’ve also come in and provided like a consultant or like case management services alongside like a family member who’s acting as trustee for a special needs trust.
[00:42:37] Sara Ecklein: Typically, a big no-no is giving cash directly to that beneficiary. Because that cash would count as income, and then that could jeopardize and they could lose their public benefits. So that’s, I’ve seen that happen a lot. Typically, there’s a lot of expenses that you’re not supposed to pay for.
[00:43:00] Sara Ecklein: Again, it’s always gonna depend on the type of public benefits that person’s receiving. But generally speaking, you typically don’t wanna pay for rent and food because those things would be counted, and that’s what like a public benefit, like SSI for example. That’s the, I find the most restrictive benefit.
[00:43:22] Sara Ecklein: And Social Security would actually cut back or even cut off that SSI. And really, when you’re wearing the hat of a trustee for a special needs trust, part of your duty is to make sure that beneficiary is maximizing their public benefits.
[00:43:42] Cathy Curtis: Absolutely. And that must be tough, I’m sure, and this probably happens to you. A trustee of one of those trusts may, or a beneficiary, the beneficiary of one of those trusts may come to you and ask you for money.
[00:43:59] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, a couple times.
[00:44:01] Cathy Curtis: Yes. And that takes a certain skill to handle a situation like that.
[00:44:07] Sara Ecklein: Yes. So I worked and provided case management services as well at the former fiduciary agency. And that really is a tool that I have in my tool belt with acting in the role of trustee. Because it’s working with the client and really building that relationship.
[00:44:26] Sara Ecklein: It’s hard depending on what the disability is. A lot of times I do work with clients that have some mental illness or cognitive impairment or developmental disability. And they really aren’t able to understand ever the rules of a special needs trust. I do try my best to explain, but beginning to support them, and then sometimes working with the team so that we can all reinforce what those rules are, that’s typically what that kind of looks like in those scenarios.
[00:44:56] Cathy Curtis: Very interesting. One, a segue to long-term care insurance. Do you ever recommend that your clients buy that type of insurance.
[00:45:08] Sara Ecklein: I don’t, because I can’t give financial advice.
[00:45:13] Cathy Curtis: So you consider that financial advice, not help?
[00:45:15] Sara Ecklein: Yes, I do. Yes. I will say that working with clients with long-term care insurance, I can see when the, if that’s a need, how it can really be such a benefit.
[00:45:32] Sara Ecklein: I think what’s hard is now finding long-term care insurance that’s really going to give you the coverage you need. That’s hard. I don’t know if you have any long-term care insurance agents, but I would love referrals.
[00:45:45] Cathy Curtis: I do actually. I’ll send those to you. Yeah, I do. It is a very complicated area and changes all the time.
[00:45:53] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. And from my understanding, they’re cutting back and back more and more of what they’re covering and shortening how much the time that they’re willing to pay and the amount they’re willing to pay. And a lot of policies don’t provide or don’t cover home care, but it’s only assisted living.
[00:46:12] Cathy Curtis: Yeah, it’s just like the whole public benefits arena.
[00:46:15] Cathy Curtis: You really have to dig into the details and understand what exactly the person is buying. And it’s their situation or not.
[00:46:25] Sara Ecklein: Yes. So that’s where like typically when clients are coming to me in the planning phase, like that’s their choice of whether or not they want to do that. I find that usually if they’re working with a financial advisor, which most of them are, that person would be making the recommendations.
[00:46:41] Sara Ecklein: And then if a client is using my services, I’m working with a client now and they’re still alive. It’s too late to get long-term care insurance.
[00:46:52] Cathy Curtis: So it’s effort to get it when you’re older and a lot of people don’t qualify anymore. It’s very difficult insurance to get actually. Let me ask you one last question about what you do, and then I wanna ask you about some of these amazing personal things you do.
[00:47:09] Cathy Curtis: So are you required as a private, professional fiduciary to do continuing education? Just for example, I’m a CFP®. We have to do so many CEs per year, and I’m just wondering about that in your profession.
[00:47:24] Sara Ecklein: Yes. Oh yeah, absolutely. For our licensing, it requires, I’m also a member of PFA, the Professional Fiduciary Association of California.
[00:47:35] Sara Ecklein: That also has its requirements. So yes, we do have continuing education and that comes due just like with our license every year.
[00:47:46] Cathy Curtis: Yes. Okay. Very similar to my profession.
[00:47:49] Sara Ecklein: Yeah. And it’s 15 hours a year and it must include two hours of ethics.
[00:47:57] Cathy Curtis: Yes. Okay. We have the same. Sara, is there anything else that you would like to share with our audience about what you do that I have not touched on?
[00:48:08] Sara Ecklein: I feel like we’ve covered a good amount. I would be happy if people are interested in potentially working with me or learning more about my services, you can go directly to my website. It’s trustandhonor.co. That’s dot co. There’s no M at the end. And there’s a contact us page so clients can enter their contact information and their unique situation. And I’m always, I offer a 30-minute complimentary consultation.
[00:48:42] Sara Ecklein: If they’d like to book a consult with me, I’m happy to.
[00:48:46] Cathy Curtis: And I’ll add that to the show notes as well. And then what is the name of the association you mentioned earlier in the call? That’s a good resource.
[00:48:55] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, so PFA, it’s the Professional Fiduciary Association of California. And their website is pfac-pro.org.
[00:49:11] Cathy Curtis: Okay, great. Now what I wanna ask you about, this is really fun fact. You completed the John Muir Trail, 213 miles. That’s amazing. When did you do that?
[00:49:28] Sara Ecklein: I actually did it in college. I had no real backpacking experience. I trained with a few friends for a year. We did several small backpacking trips leading up to it, and it ended up being a 20 day.
[00:49:45] Sara Ecklein: And I, it was wonderful. I’m so glad I did it then because getting away completely unplugged. That’s definitely not possible for me at this point in time.
[00:49:55] Cathy Curtis: Yeah, that would be really hard. Did you do it on your own?
[00:49:57] Sara Ecklein: I did it with a group of five people. Yeah, so it was wonderful. All through the High Sierras of California.
[00:50:05] Sara Ecklein: It was beautiful.
[00:50:07] Cathy Curtis: Did you do, what half dome part of that?
[00:50:10] Sara Ecklein: Half dome wasn’t, but actually hiking up half dome, that was the day trip that I did that inspired the John Muir Trail.
[00:50:21] Cathy Curtis: Okay. Yeah, I’ve done half dome twice. I don’t think I’m gonna do that again.
[00:50:25] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, actually when you’re hiking up to half dome, there’s like a junction that says Mount Whitney and 200 some miles from there.
[00:50:33] Sara Ecklein: And so yeah, we all were joking, oh yeah, let’s do it. And then we ended up doing it the next year.
[00:50:39] Cathy Curtis: Yeah, you ended up sevening. That’s amazing. Very. Okay. And then the other fun fact is that you’re a Tango dancer.
[00:50:48] Sara Ecklein: Yes, I met my husband that way. The Bay Area actually has a very active Tango community, so it, yeah, it’s definitely a love and passion of mine and really being embodied and connected is all part of Tango.
[00:51:07] Sara Ecklein: It’s gone away a little bit. It’s coming back, but Covid really stopped our practice.
[00:51:14] Cathy Curtis: No, that’s such a shame.
[00:51:14] Sara Ecklein: Yes, but it is coming back. I’m actually, I’m expecting, so I’m very pregnant. So at the moment I’m not doing much going out and dancing.
[00:51:26] Cathy Curtis: Oh my gosh. Oh, that’s another fun fact. And what’s great is you have your own business so you can probably take some time off, but work through your pregnancy as well, right?
[00:51:40] Sara Ecklein: Yeah, it’s definitely, I’m grateful to have built the business a few years ago. And I’m in a real sweet spot of being home-based and yeah. I’m still able to work and serve with many clients, and I also have an assistant that will be filling in for me by taking a bit of a leave.
[00:52:06] Cathy Curtis: Great. Sara, this has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time, and I’ll be sure and put the show notes up, so people know how to get in touch with you.
[00:52:17] Sara Ecklein: Wonderful. Cathy, thank you again for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
[00:52:21] Cathy Curtis: You’re welcome. You take care.
[00:52:23] Cathy Curtis: Same to you.
[00:52:25] Sara Ecklein: Bye now.
[00:52:25] Cathy Curtis: Bye-bye.