Choosing A Living Trust
How to Ensure You've Covered the Basics
WHY CHOOSE A LIVING TRUST?
The desire to ensure that an heir is provided for materially is the most common reason for creating a Living Trust. In the case of minors, a trust allows a parent to provide for a child without giving the child control over the property. The parent can also mandate how the property is to be distributed and for what purposes.
A trust is also a useful tool for taking care of heirs who have mental impairments or lack investment experience. The trust document can establish that all money is controlled by a trustee with sound investment experience and judgment. Likewise, a trust preserves the integrity of funds when the recipient has a history of extravagance. It can protect the property from an heir’s spendthrift nature as well as from his or her creditors.
This is also true of persons who may feel pressure from friends, con artists, financial advisors and others who want a slice of the pie. A Living Trust can make it extremely difficult for a recipient to direct property to one of these uses.
A “spendthrift” provision in a Living Trust is often used to further preserve the integrity of assets. It prohibits the heir from transferring his or her interest and also bars creditors from reaching into the trust. Living Trusts are relatively easy to update, modify or revoke in most cases. A will, however, is difficult to change, and establishing one requires many formalities.
SHORT-CIRCUITING THE ORDEAL OF PROBATE
Many Americans think that the benefit of a Living Trust is the avoidance of probate. Because property in the trust is not considered part of an estate, it does not have to undergo this sometimes lengthy process. The property is instead administered and distributed by the trustee, according to the specific terms of the trust.
Probate expenses can be significant. Costs vary according to the size of the estate and what it includes. It also varies by state. Some have very expensive and onerous procedures, while others offer a streamlined version of probate.
Avoiding probate means not only avoiding hassle and expense, but also saving time. Probate can extend the amount of time before an heir receives an inheritance by months, years – even longer if the will is contested. Not only can this create hardship among the heirs, but the property in the estate may also suffer. Many assets must be carefully managed to preserve and enhance their value. Losses may easily occur during this interim period.
There is an emotional price to pay, too. Survivors may be continually reminded of the loss of a loved one as the process drags on.
Probate can also lead to loss of privacy. Wills and probate are public matters, whereas a Living Trust keeps the estate private. Typical probate documents list all assets, appraised value and names of new owners. This information becomes available to marketers, media, creditors and con artists.
If the estate includes real property in more than one state, the process becomes even more complex. An ancillary administration is required to probate out-of-state real estate. As you can imagine, “double probate” is even more time-consuming, expensive and emotionally taxing than a single probate process.
Probate also allows the original owner’s creditors a shot at the property. Although there is still some controversy about the extent of its creditor-shielding benefits, a Living Trust generally makes it much more difficult for an estate to be consumed by creditor claims.
Living Trusts are harder to contest than wills. Part of the reason is that trusts usually involve ongoing contacts with bank officials, trustees and others who can later provide solid evidence of the owner’s intentions and mental state. A Living Trust that has been in place a long period of time is less likely to be challenged as having been subjected to undue influence or fraud. And because it is a very private document, the terms of the trust might not even be revealed to family members, allowing less opportunity for challenges to its provisions.
A Living Trust also avoids the painful ordeal of “living probate.” That’s what happens when a person is no longer competent to manage property, whether because of illness or other causes. Without a Living Trust, a judge must examine whether you are in fact incompetent, and all of the embarrassing details of your incompetence will be dragged out in court. The judge will appoint a guardian – perhaps someone you would not want to manage your affairs. Guardians act under court supervision and often must submit detailed reports, meaning that the process can become quite expensive.
With a Living Trust, your designated trustee takes over management of trust property and must manage it according to your explicit instructions in the trust document. The terms typically set standards for determining whether you are incompetent or not. For example, you may specify that your doctor must declare you can no longer manage your financial and business affairs.
MANAGING ASSETS, EASING TAX BURDENS
Living Trusts also provide a way for beneficiaries to receive the guidance of professional asset managers. A bank may be named as a Successor Trustee or Co-Trustee, allowing an experienced trust department to manage the assets.
Of course, eliminating or reducing taxes is one of the primary goals of estate planning. Trusts allow for a highly flexible approach to taxes. Income taxes can be slashed by transferring income-producing assets to a recipient in a lower tax bracket. Through the use of trusts, the state and federal government’s estate tax exclusions can be doubled, without the filing of an estate tax return unless the decedent had more than the current estate tax exclusion. Note, the estate tax exclusion for the state may be lower than the federal exclusion.