A trust is a fiduciary relationship in which one party, known as a trustor, gives another party, the trustee, the right to hold title to property or assets for the benefit of a third party, the beneficiary. Trusts are established to provide legal protection for the trustor’s assets, to make sure those assets are distributed according to the wishes of the trustor, and to save time, reduce paperwork and, in some cases, avoid or reduce inheritance or estate taxes. In finance, a trust can also be a type of closed-end fund built as a public limited company.
Trusts are created by settlors (an individual along with his or her lawyer) who decide how to transfer parts or all of their assets to trustees. These trustees hold on to the assets for the beneficiaries of the trust. The rules of a trust depend on the terms on which it was built. In some areas, it is possible for older beneficiaries to become trustees. For example, in some jurisdictions, the grantor can be a lifetime beneficiary and a trustee at the same time. A trust can be used to determine how a person’s money should be managed and distributed while that person is alive, or after their death. A trust helps avoid taxes and probate. It can protect assets from creditors, and it can dictate the terms of an inheritance for beneficiaries. The disadvantages of trusts are that they require time and money to create, and they cannot be easily revoked. A trust is one way to provide for a beneficiary who is underage or has a mental disability that may impair his ability to manage finances. Once the beneficiary is deemed capable of managing his assets, he will receive possession of the trust.
Categories of Trusts
Although there are many different types of trusts, each fits into one or more of the following categories:
Living or Testamentary
A living trust – also called an inter-vivos trust – is a written document in which an individual’s assets are provided as a trust for the individual’s use and benefit during his lifetime. These assets are transferred to his beneficiaries at the time of the individual’s death. The individual has a successor trustee who is in charge of transferring the assets. A testamentary trust, also called a will trust, specifies how the assets of an individual are designated after the individual’s death.
Revocable or Irrevocable
A revocable trust can be changed or terminated by the trustor during his lifetime. An irrevocable trust, as the name implies, is one the trustor cannot change once it’s established, or one that becomes irrevocable upon his death. Living trusts can be revocable or irrevocable. Testamentary trusts can only be irrevocable. An irrevocable trust is usually more desirable. The fact that it is unalterable, containing assets that have been permanently moved out of the trustor’s possession, is what allows estate taxes to be minimized or avoided altogether.
Funded or Unfunded
A funded trust has assets put into it by the trustor during his lifetime. An unfunded trust consists only of the trust agreement with no funding. Unfunded trusts can become funded upon the trustor’s death or remain unfunded. Since an unfunded trust exposes assets to many of the perils a trust is designed to avoid, ensuring proper funding is important.
Common Purposes for Trusts
The trust fund is an ancient instrument – dating back to feudal times, in fact – that is sometimes greeted with scorn, due to its association with the idle rich (as in the pejorative “trust fund baby”). But trusts are highly versatile vehicles that can protect assets and direct them into the right hands in the present and in the future, long after the original asset owner’s death. A trust is a legal entity employed to hold property, so the assets are generally safer than they would be with a family member. Even a relative with the best of intentions could face a lawsuit, divorce or other misfortune, putting those assets at risk. Though they seem geared primarily toward high net worth individuals and families, since they can be expensive to establish and maintain, those of more middle-class means may also find them useful – in ensuring care for a physically or mentally deficient dependent, for example. Some individuals use trusts simply for privacy. The terms of a will may be public in some jurisdictions. The same conditions of a will may apply through a trust, and individuals who don’t want their wills publicly posted opt for trusts instead. Trusts can also be used for estate planning. Typically, the assets of a deceased individual are passed to the spouse and then equally divided to the surviving children. However, children who are under the legal age of 18 need to have trustees. The trustees only have control over the assets until the children reach adulthood. Trusts can also be used for tax planning. In some cases, the tax consequences provided by using trusts are lower compared to other alternatives. As such, the usage of trusts has become a staple in tax planning for individuals and corporations.
Assets in a trust benefit from a step-up in basis, which can mean a substantial tax savings for the heirs who eventually inherit from the trust. By contrast, assets that are simply given away during the owner’s lifetime typically carry his or her original cost basis.
Types of Trust Funds
• Credit Shelter Trust: Sometimes called a bypass trust or family trust, this trust allows a person to bequeath an amount up to (but not over) the estate-tax exemption. The rest of the estate passes to a spouse, tax free. Funds placed in a credit shelter trust are forever free of estate taxes – even if they grow.
• Generation-Skipping Trust: This trust allows a person to transfer assets tax free to beneficiaries at least two generations their junior – typically, their grandchildren.
• Qualified Personal Residence Trust: This trust removes a person’s home (or vacation home) from their estate. This could be helpful if the properties are likely to appreciate greatly.
• Insurance Trust: This irrevocable trust shelters a life insurance policy within a trust, thus removing it from a taxable estate. While a person may no longer borrow against the policy or change beneficiaries, proceeds can be used to pay estate costs after a person dies.
• Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust: This trust allows a person to direct assets to specific beneficiaries – their survivors – at different times. In the typical scenario, a spouse will receive lifelong income from the trust and children will get what’s left after the spouse dies.
• Separate Share Trust: This trust lets a parent establish a trust with different features for each beneficiary (i.e., child).
• A Spendthrift Trust: This trust protects the assets a person places in the trust from being claimed by creditors. This trust also allows for management of the assets by an independent trustee and forbids the beneficiary from selling his interest in the trust.
• Charitable Trust: This trust benefits a particular charity or non-profit organization. Normally, a charitable trust is established as part of an estate plan and helps lower or avoid estate and gift taxes. A charitable remainder trust, funded during a person’s lifetime, disperses income to the designated beneficiaries (like children or a spouse) for a specified period of time, and then donates the remaining assets to the charity.
• Special Needs Trust: This trust is meant for a dependent who receives government benefits, such as Social Security disability benefits. Setting up the trust enables the disabled person to receive income without affecting or forfeiting the government payments.
• Blind Trust: This trust provides for the trustees to handle the assets of the trust without the knowledge of the beneficiaries. This could be useful if the beneficiary needs to avoid conflicts of interest.
• Totten Trust: Also known as a payable-on-death account, this trust is created during the lifetime of the trustor, who also acts as the trustee. It’s generally used for bank accounts (physical property cannot be put into it). The big advantage is that assets in the trust avoid probate upon the trustor’s death. Often called a “poor man’s trust,” this variety does not require a written document and often costs nothing to set up. It can be established simply by having the title on the account include identifying language such as “In Trust For,” “Payable on Death To” or “As Trustee For.”
Why and How to Transfer Your Assets To Your Revocable Living Trust
These days many people choose a revocable living trust instead of relying on a will or joint ownership in their estate plan. They like the cost and time savings, plus the added control over assets that a living trust can provide. For example, when properly prepared, a living trust can avoid the public, costly and time-consuming court processes at death (probate) and incapacity (conservatorship or guardianship). It can let you provide for your spouse without disinheriting your children, which can be important in second marriages. It can save estate taxes. And it can protect inheritances for children and grandchildren from the courts, creditors, spouses, divorce proceedings, and irresponsible spending. Still, many people make a big mistake that sends their assets right into the court system: they don’t fund their trusts.
What is “funding” my trust?
Funding your trust is the process of transferring your assets from you to your trust. To do this, you physically change the titles of your assets from your individual name (or joint names, if married) to the name of your trust. You will also change most beneficiary designations to your trust.
Who controls the assets in my trust?
The trustee you name will control the assets in your trust. Most likely, you have named yourself as trustee, so you will still have complete control. One of the key benefits of a revocable living trust is that you can continue to buy and sell assets just as you do now. You can also remove assets from your living trust should you ever decide to do so.
Why is funding my trust so important?
If you have signed your living trust document but haven’t changed titles and beneficiary designations, you will not avoid probate. Your living trust can only control the assets you put into it. You may have a great trust, but until you fund it (transfer your assets to it by changing titles), it doesn’t control anything. If your goal in having a living trust is to avoid probate at death and court intervention at incapacity, then you must fund it now, while you are able to do so.
What happens if I forget to transfer an asset?
Along with your trust, your attorney will prepare a “pour over will” that acts like a safety net. When you die, the will “catches” any forgotten asset and sends it to your trust. The asset will probably go through probate first, but then it can be distributed according to the instructions in your trust. Who is responsible for funding my trust? You are ultimately responsible for making sure all of your appropriate assets are transferred to your trust.
Won’t my attorney do this?
Typically, you will transfer some assets and your attorney will handle some. Most attorneys will transfer your real estate, then provide you with instructions and sample letters for your other assets. Ideally, your attorney should review each asset with you, explain the procedure, and help you decide who will be responsible for transferring each asset. Once you understand the process, you may decide to transfer many of your assets yourself and save on legal fees.
How difficult is the funding process?
It’s not difficult, but it will take some time. Because living trusts are now so widely used, you should meet with little or no resistance when transferring your assets. For some assets, a short assignment document will be used. Others will require written instructions from you. Most can be handled by mail or telephone. Some institutions will want to see proof that your trust exists. To satisfy them, your attorney will prepare what is often called a certificate of trust. This is a shortened version of your trust that verifies your trust’s existence explains the powers given to the trustee and identifies the trustees, but it does not reveal any information about your assets, your beneficiaries and their inheritances. While the process isn’t difficult, it’s easy to get sidetracked or procrastinate. Just make funding your trust a priority and keep going until you’re finished. Make a list of your assets, their values and locations, then start with the most valuable ones and work your way down. Remember why you are doing this, and look forward to the peace of mind you’ll have when the funding of your trust is complete.
Which assets should I put in my trust?
The general idea is that all of your assets should be in your trust. However, as we’ll explain, there are a few assets you may not want in, or that cannot be put into, your trust. Also, your attorney may have a valid reason (like avoiding a potential lawsuit) for leaving a certain asset out of your trust. Generally, assets you want in your trust include real estate, bank/saving accounts, investments, business interests and notes payable to you. You will also want to change most beneficiary designations to your trust so those assets will flow into your trust and be part of your overall plan. IRAs, retirement plans and other exceptions are addressed later.
Are there any assets I should not put in my trust?
If you live in a non-community property state and have owned an asset jointly with your spouse since before 1976, transferring the asset to your living trust could cause your surviving spouse to pay more in capital gains tax if he or she decides to sell the asset after you die. If the asset is your personal residence, this would not be an issue unless the gain is more than $500,000. But it could be a problem for other assets like farm land, commercial real estate or stocks. If you think this might apply to your situation, be sure to check with your tax advisor or attorney before you change the title to your trust. Other assets that should probably not be transferred to your trust are incentive stock options, Section 1244 stock and professional corporations. If you are unsure whether or not to transfer an asset to your trust, check with your attorney.
What Does a Trust Attorney Do?
A trust attorney will set up a trust on your behalf. A trust attorney can provide relevant legal help to whomever you name your trustee, the person who is in charge managing the trust. You can even name a lawyer as your trustee. This can be useful if your estate is large and complex, or if you want to ensure that your trustee is an impartial third party.
How Do I Know If I Need a Trust Attorney?
If you are creating a trust, it’s a smart idea to either have it created or reviewed by a trust attorney. Here are some reasons you may want to create a trust:
• You don’t want your family to go through probate
• You’re trying to lower your estate taxes
• You don’t need to name the guardian of a minor or specify your last wishes (for these, you need to create a will)
• You want to dictate when your beneficiaries receive their inheritance
How Much Does a Trust Attorney Cost?
A trust attorney charges based on the service being provided. To simply create or review a trust, your attorney may charge an hourly rate or a flat fee. To act as the trustee, a trust attorney generally charges by the hour. Rates will vary depending on where you live, so be sure to set a rate with your attorney up front.
What Should I Expect from Working with a Trust Attorney?
Creating a trust will ensure that your valuables go to the right place, either while you’re still living or after death. By using a trust lawyer, you can be confident that what you decide will be put into place because even if there is a dispute, your trust should hold up in court. A trust can’t contain your last wishes or information on the guardian of your child should anything happen to you, so you may still need to create a will to cover all your bases.
Individuals who are considering drafting a trust or a will may wish to consult with an estate planning lawyer. He or she can explain the advantages of using a trust as well as a will. He or she can make recommendations based on the specific considerations of the client. He or she may even recommend using both documents, such as by using a pour-over will that places any property owned at the time of the testator’s death into the trust.