Over the last two decades, the popularity of Living Trusts has skyrocketed. No longer are a tool just for the rich, Living Trusts one of the most common estate planning tools in use today. In fact, today’s estate planning is not just about death and taxes, but includes protection of one’s assets from the potential claims of creditors as well as personal income tax planning.
This legal arrangement, usually drafted by an estate attorney, creates a separate entity called a Living Trust. A Living Trust is called that simply because it is created while you’re alive (as opposed to a “testamentary” trust created after death).
The Parties Involved
The Living Trust document itself names three different parties. The individual (or couple) that establishes the Trust is named the Grantor (also referred to as the Trustor).
The Trustee is the person named by the Trust as the controller of the Trust’s assets (and in many cases, the Trustees are the same people as the Grantors).
On the receiving end, the Beneficiaries are the heirs that will benefit from the Trust once the Grantor’s have passed away.
Who Needs A Living Trust?
Almost anyone with an estate of $100,000 or more can benefit from having a living trust. Estates of $100,000 or more are often subjected to probate in their state of residence, which can cost anywhere from 2%-4% of the estate’s value in court and legal fees.
The living trust also is useful for individuals subject to estate taxes. Through a living trust, a couple is able to maximize their Unified Credit to its fullest. It even accomplishes protection for individuals wanting to avoid conservatorship.
Advanced living trusts can be structured for complicated family situations. Re-married spouses, with children from a previous marriage, can use an advanced revocable trust to ensure kids receive their proper inheritance.
Living Trusts avoid probate, since they are completely private. Because a trust is recognized as a separate legal entity, distributions can be made by a Trustee to named beneficiaries without any involvement from the courts.
The courts maintain no control over the Trust’s assets, and do not tie up the assets in a lengthy (and costly) probate process. The Trustee simply distributes assets to named heirs, but only if those assets have actually been placed inside the Trust.
Funding Your Living Trust
Once established, almost anything can be placed in a trust: savings accounts, stocks, bonds, real estate, life insurance, and personal property. In “funding” the trust, you simply change the name or title on your assets to the name of your Trust. Many people worry about losing control of assets; however, that is not the case within a carefully-constructed Living Trust.
Always There for You
Because the Trust is essentially controlled by one individual (the Trustee), that person can carry out your wishes when you’re not able to. For instance, if you have children from a previous marriage and wish to leave them an inheritance, specific instructions to the Trustee will ensure that they receive what you had requested.
If you’re institutionalized or unable to care for yourself anymore, the Trust can still function and make distributions as needed. The Trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to see that your requests are fulfilled exactly. He or she can even provide care and protection for disabled relatives or handicapped children in accordance with your wishes.
Reducing Estate Taxes
The Living Trust also minimizes estate taxes by fully utilizing every individual’s Unified Credit. The Estate Tax Credit, as mandated by Congress, currently shelters up to $5.43 million from estate taxes. With only a will in place, a married couple will receive a single $5.43 million exemption.
However, if a Living Trust with “A-B Provisions” is in place and one spouse dies, the Living Trust separates into two separate trusts (commonly referred to as an A-B Trust).
In an A-B Trust, each of the two separate trusts receives its own $5.43 million exemption, meaning a total of $10.86 million is sheltered from estate taxes.
Any amounts over that $10.86 million will be subject to estate taxes, with rates climbing as high as 46%.
Living Trusts are easy to start-up and require little on-going maintenance. They afford an extra measure of protection against loss of control, and ensure that your assets remain out of the public record even after your death. However, they do not provide protection against creditors or divorce, and do not reduce estate taxes for estates over $5.43 million in value ($10.86 million if married). Each family’s situation is different. Some will benefit from a living trust, while others may not.
If you are married or have assets over $100,000, you owe it to your family to investigate the best means to preserve your hard-earned wealth.
And for estates over $5.43 million, you may want to combine a living trust with another advanced estate planning technique.