Recently I was asked about living trusts. Someone told me how a family member placed their assets in a living trust. When they passed away, my friend was impressed at how quickly that family member’s assets were transferred after death without involving the probate court. My friend asked whether a living trust would be right for him, and the differences between a living trust and a will.
There is a great deal of confusion about trusts. This is partly due to the claims some purveyors of living trusts make in order to sell their “one size fits all” living trust packages.
Like anything else, living trusts have advantages and disadvantages. It is only after these advantages and disadvantages are understood that an informed decision can be made as to whether a living trust makes sense for a particular person. Too often people believe that because a friend or relative had a living trust that it would be appropriate for them to have one as well. Everyone’s situation is different, and each person has different priorities. These differences are why it’s essential that an attorney takes the time to understand his or her client’s situation and objectives before discussing options, including living trusts, for estate planning. I attended a living trust seminar where the presenter stated that anyone owning assets that exceeded a certain value should have a living trust. Just because someone’s assets exceed a certain value is not, all by itself, a sufficient basis for deciding whether or not a living trust is appropriate.
A trust is simply a means of owning assets such as accounts in financial institutions, stocks, bonds, real estate, motor vehicles, and other assets. A trust may be the named beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
A will is a document that outlines how a person wants their solely-owned assets distributed after they pass away. A will has no utility during someone’s lifetime; it only has legal effect after the person passes away and the will is admitted to the probate court. Without these two events, a will is simply a piece of paper and does not determine what happens to someone’s assets during their lifetime.
To review all the different kinds of trusts would take many pages. In this series of articles, I’m going to briefly discuss just a few features of trusts. A living trust is created and usually funded by someone while they are alive. Testamentary trusts, on the other hand, do not come into existence until someone passes away and their will, which contains a trust, is admitted to the probate court, and an acceptance of trust is filed with the court.
Beginning in the 1960s, trusts started to become commonly used among the middle class in the United States. Before that time, trusts were used almost exclusively by the wealthy.
Living trusts offer many advantages. One of them is providing for the management of assets when the person who created the trust is incapacitated. However, this is only true for assets that are moved into the trust. Simply creating a trust without moving assets into the trust will not provide this benefit.
Let’s look at how this might work. Mary Jones creates a living trust, naming herself and her son William as co-trustees of the trust. William’s reliability must be beyond question; unreliable co-trustees could easily mismanage or even steal from the trust.
Mary then moves some or all of her assets, including her financial accounts, into the trust – a very important step. She also arranges for her regular income to be automatically deposited into the trust accounts.
A few months later, Mary suffers a stroke and becomes incapacitated. She can’t write or communicate, and has a very limited understanding of what’s going on. Because she moved her financial accounts into the trust, William (as co-trustee) is able to manage Mary’s finances through the trust. He may use the money in trust accounts to pay Mary’s bills. If Mary’s income automatically gets deposited into trust accounts, William will also be able to manage that income.
If Mary hadn’t established the trust and moved her financial accounts into it, institutions where Mary’s accounts are located might not work with William or other family members. Even if Mary appointed an attorney in fact through a durable power of attorney, it’s possible that financial institutions might choose to ignore the power of attorney.
This could create a number of problems. No one would know the value of Mary’s assets; it would be difficult or impossible to manage Mary’s affairs. There would be no access to Mary’s assets to pay her bills. Mary’s bills, such as insurance, mortgage, taxes and utilities might not get paid, resulting in foreclosure, interest and penalties for unpaid taxes, termination of insurance coverage, utilities being shut off, or collection action against Mary. Family members would not know what Mary could and could not afford.
Without the trust in these circumstances, a family member might need to make an application to the probate court to appoint a conservator of the estate for Mary so that her bills could be paid and her assets managed. Involuntary conservatorship proceedings in the probate court can be time consuming and expensive. This adds to the stress that Mary’s family must deal with in addition to the significant challenges posed by Mary’s stroke and resulting legal incapacity.
Living trusts are not appropriate for everyone. Attending “free seminars” promoting “one size fits all” living trust packages is NOT a good reason to pay for a living trust. Only after consulting a qualified, ethical attorney who will first carefully examine, understand and explain your options, can you make an informed decision whether a living trust is appropriate for you.
In the articles to follow I will examine other aspects of living trusts.
THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO BE, N.OR SHOULD IT BE RELIED UPON AS LEGAL ADVICE. CONSULT A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY FOR ADVICE AS TO YOUR PARTICULAR SITUATION.
COPYRIGHT 2016 DOMENICK N. CALABRESE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO PART OF THIS ARTICLE MAY REPRODUCED, USED OR DISSEMINATED WITHOUT THE EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.