It’s Never Too Early to Start Planning

06 Sep 2023

Elizabeth Rodgers, Synovus Trust President, talks protection and legacy

By LISA GRAY YOUNGBLOOD

Photos by PRISCILLA THOMAS

In November of 2022, Elizabeth Rodgers became the first female President of Synovus Trust Company, a subsidiary of Synovus Bank. She is responsible for a team of professionals who structure, administer and execute personal trust services and help facilitate philanthropic and wealth transfers. She also chairs the Synovus Trust board of directors and serves as executive liaison to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Her knowledge of the importance of wealth planning isn't just informative—it's personal.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that Rodgers is my sister-in-law. I have known her for most of my life, and although our career paths began similarly, we both took unusual turns, ones neither of us saw coming. Her turn inspired me to take a few risks of my own.

Rodgers attended the University of Virginia for undergrad and the University of South Carolina for law school. We were in the same law school class and we enjoyed some healthy academic competition. I don’t remember who won, which likely means it was her, but either way, we navigated school with our friendship intact. I thought I knew everything about her, but within one year of graduation, she surprised me.

Law just didn’t suit her, so she made a change. Unlike me, she saw no reason to wait. “Practicing law was my first ‘big girl’ job,” she explains. “At first, I wasn’t sure if it was just being a full-time employee or law itself that I didn’t like, but soon enough I realized it was arguing. I could not imagine a future arguing with people every day. While I am not conflict avoidant, it just wasn’t how I wanted to spend my days.”

Determined to find a different way to use her legal background, she tried banking on for size. Once she found trust and estates work, she knew she had found her calling. “I enjoy hearing people’s stories and helping them frame and achieve their definitions of success and legacy. It’s incredibly fulfilling to help clients map out a plan to stay in control as they age, then watch that plan in action as it supports not only the client, but also the next generation and the philanthropic missions most dear to the client.”

Of course, Rodgers did not begin at the top. She began in the trust department of a large bank, and this suited her well for many years. “I was very purposeful early in my career not to take on too much,” she explains. “When my three girls were still at home, I wanted to be in the carpool line every day. That was important to me.” But once the girls went to college, she realized she wanted more, and she knew she would not find it in a big bank. “I took a leap to Synovus approximately six years ago and am so thankful I did. Synovus has a culture of caring and a reputation that I think is unmatched. It was a risk to leave the big bank world, but I was fortunate to find a place that has big bank resources but common-sense business practices.”

The Synovus Trust team provides a range of advisory and hands-on services. “We meet clients where they are in their journey,” Rodgers explains. “Sometimes this means helping plan out documents and facilitating meetings with their other advisors, including attorneys and accountants. Sometimes this means taking existing documents and executing the plan. Trust companies work across generations and can be critical in understanding and administering estate plans.”

On the investment side, Synovus has an open architecture approach. “This means we can pick best in class, pre-vetted investments for our clients. We also have access to lower cost funds that individual investors don’t. We are able to customize the plan to meet the clients’ needs, taking taxes and other assets into account. All of this sits on a fiduciary platform, which to me, is part of the secret sauce. It means that our entire structure, including fees, is designed to put the clients’ interests over our own and over the bank. It is a very rewarding way to work.”

If you think estate planning is beyond the scope of your needs or personal resources, think again. “Do not wait until your goals are clear before you start planning. This is such an easy thing to put off, but it is critical to have in place. It is the roadmap for what you want to happen in the case of your incapacity or death. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s better than leaving those you care most about overwhelmed and confused.” She also encourages everyone to have a Durable Power of Attorney. “This Power of Attorney activates when a person is no longer able to handle his or her finances. A will, on the other hand, does not activate until death. This is part of the standard package of documents an attorney will draft for you.”

Legacy is also at the heart of estate planning. What is it you would like to be remembered for? How can you leave the world a better place than you found it? There are so many important causes, missions and organizations on which you can leave a lasting mark. “In my experience, most high net worth clients are philanthropically inclined,” Rodgers says. “So, it is something we deal with a lot. Providing this service is a delight, but it is also serious business. To best benefit all parties, careful consideration should go into structuring the gift. And, of course, an attorney is integral to the process to deal with tax, drafting and other issues.”

The biggest mistakes Rodgers sees in estate planning stem from procrastination and self-drafting. No one wants to think about incapacity or death, but it is critical to do just that—and the best way to do it well is to hire a professional. “The worst documents I have ever seen are those from the internet or self-drafted. The thing to remember is that we aren’t just talking about a will. Powers of Attorney and health care documents can be very state specific. Getting professional help from the right attorney is money well spent.”

Rodgers does caution people to choose their attorneys carefully. “A personal recommendation from someone you trust is a good way to find the right provider, but I would interview several and ask for a cost estimate. Also, if you are working with a trust officer, they will almost always know who is good and who is not. They can help you firm up the plan and steer you in the right direction.”

Finally, Rodgers encourages people to revisit their plans “every three to five years or if a major life event such as divorce, marriage or death happens.” But most importantly, Rodgers encourages everyone to start planning now. “It’s never too early to protect yourself, your family or your assets.”

There is another story here as well—one about a female finding success in what many deem a man’s world. Being the first female Trust President in a company with tremendous assets is an extraordinary accomplishment for anyone, and I felt inclined to ask what advice she would offer young professionals. True to character, her advice is grounded in humility, integrity and hard work. “Make sure the goals of the company align with your personal goals, and then get to work. There is no substitute for hard work…. EVER! And remember, you don’t have to win every battle. I always ask myself if this is the hill I want to die on. It rarely is.” She also recognizes the connection between personal and professional life and the balance that is key to finding success in both. “Pick your partner wisely and treat them kindly; you are in it together. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Make sure to smile.” She ends with the sage, universal advice that often feels lost in today’s world: “listen, listen, listen.”

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