Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why a will is not enough (or why your estate plan should include a revocable trust)

Your will is a legally binding statement directing who will receive your property upon your death. It also appoints a legal representative, often called an “executor” or “personal representative,” to carry out your wishes. The process by which a person’s property is passed to the people or institutions named in the will is called probate. However, a will covers only probate property. Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Examples of property that pass outside of probate and, thus, are not mentioned in a will, include: jointly-owned property, property in a trust, life insurance proceeds, and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans.

A trust is a legal arrangement through which one person (or an institution, such as a bank or law firm), called a “trustee,” holds legal title to property for another person, called a “beneficiary.” The rules or instructions under which the trustee operates are set out in the trust instrument. There can be a number of advantages to establishing a trust, depending on the individual situation. Particularly important for the basic estate plan, revocable or living trusts give the donor complete control over the trust. The donor may amend, revoke or terminate the trust at any time. The donor can take back the funds he put in the trust or change the trust’s terms. The donor can also title other assets, including non-probate assets in the name of the trust. Thus, the donor is able to reap the benefits of the trust arrangement while maintaining the ability to change the trust at any time prior to death.

Revocable trusts are generally used for the following purposes:

1. Asset management. They permit the trustee (the person who manages the trust) to administer and invest the trust property for the benefit of one or more beneficiaries of the trust.

2. Probate avoidance. At the death of the person who created the trust, the trust property passes to whomever is named in the trust. It does not come under the jurisdiction of the probate court and its distribution need not be held up by the probate process. However, the property of a revocable trust will be included in the donor’s estate for tax purposes.

3. Tax planning. While the assets of a revocable trust will be included in the donor’s taxable estate, the trust can be drafted so that the assets will not be included in the estates of the beneficiaries, thus avoiding taxes when they die.

4. Disability planning. Wills only provide for death. Trusts can help a person have a plan in place in the event of their own illness.