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Clients often think trusts can do everything – as if they are magical creatures – the unicorn of estate planning. All their problems are solved because they have a trust. That may be the case, but it may not. Different trusts do different things.

Living trusts are often the topic of small talk at social gatherings or on the golf course, but not many people know what they actually do. They are “living” because they are created now, while you are alive. You sign it and it becomes an enforceable document. Your living trust can be revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust can be revoked or amended by you. An irrevocable trust cannot be changed by you once it is signed. Because an irrevocable trust cannot be changed, you want to be extra careful to understand its terms. The vast majority of people will start with a revocable trust.

A typical estate plan includes a will that “pours over” your assets to a revocable trust. On your death, any assets in your name alone will become part of your estate. Your will then directs the executor of your estate to hand them over to the trustee of your trust to administer them.

For estate planners, this is where it gets fun. A trust can address many issues, depending on the trust language. Below are eight things you can do with a living trust.

  1. Reduce estate taxes. If you are married, the trust can provide for estate tax savings. In Massachusetts, for example, a properly drafted and administered trust can save a couple approximately $100,000 in estate taxes on the death of the second spouse.
  2. Protect minor children. A trust can hold the money for minor children until they are responsible enough to manage the money themselves. Many clients prefer to give the children access to the monies staggered over a period of time i.e. at ages 25, 30 and 35.
  3.  
  4. Save your grown-up kids from themselves. If your child will most likely not ever be able to manage the money himself due to a drug or alcohol issue, or because he is just bad with money, the trustee can hold the money in trust for your child’s lifetime and distribute it as needed.
  5. Keep your assets in the family. If your child is getting married and you do not like her fiancé, you should have a trust. In the event they divorce, you do not want half your assets winding up with your ex-son-in-law.
  6. Take the sting out of the fling. If you are concerned that in the event of your untimely death, your grieving spouse will take up with the pool boy, or the cocktail waitress at the country club, putting the assets in trust with a professional trustee will make sure your spouse does not take all the money and give it to his or her latest fling.
  7. Avoid probate. If you put your assets in the trust during your lifetime instead of relying on your will to do that when you die, you can avoid probate. It is not difficult to do – you need to transfer ownership from your regular “Mary Smith” bank account to a “Mary Smith, Trustee of The Mary Smith Trust” account – and an experienced financial advisors or lawyer can assist you with this.
  8. Ensure your family’s privacy. If you have a will that is probated, it will become a matter of public record along with certain other information such as the value of your assets, and often, an inventory listing your assets. A living trust, on the other hand, is a private document.
  9. Protect yourself while you are alive. If you fund the trust during your lifetime and later become incapacitated, the successor trustee will be able to manage the trust assets for your benefit. This is important for people who are single, and for those who do not have children. You want a trust in place that will provide for you in the event you are unable to make decisions for yourself.

While I often tell clients that trusts are not the Pepto-Bismol of the estate planning world, the reality is most people can benefit from a living trust. Talk to your lawyer about whether a living trust can indeed help ease your estate planning heartburn.

Christine Fletcher - Contributor for Forbes

Posted 10:46 AM

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