Colleagues who bemoan the online legal services world are sometimes criticized by those in the online world for trying to keep the “Wizard” behind the curtain, so to speak. The criticism, which I agree with, is that clients are served better when they can understand what Mr. Wizard, Esq. is actually doing and saying. Yet, even my online colleagues can be a tad overly zealous in encouraging DIY applications. So to temper the curtain yanking but also shed sunlight on Mr. Wizard’s machinations, this 2-part series will provide a few truths about trusts, so let’s click our heels and get started:
- Attorneys charge more for trusts because we’ll never see clients again after creating the trusts for you, whereas wills keep you and your family coming back at least for probate, which generates big fees.
Fact: Attorneys often charge more for trusts because it’s more work. We do see you again because life events such as divorces, re-marriages, and births often require a redesignation of beneficiaries at the least. Sometimes, we see you again because the IRS will inevitably change the tax code in a way that affects your trust. We will also see your beneficiaries if we are designated to administer the trust assets. So, the fees associated with creating a trust are not compensating for the loss of probate fees, they are compensation for the real work that is associated with creating, monitoring, and/or administering a trust.
- Provisions for tax benefits placed in wills can provide the same results as most trusts. Plus, tax savings in trusts are generally for the wealthy.
Fact: True; provisions that save taxes can be placed in a will. However, a properly drafted, stand-alone will must be probated and probate fees will bite into the tax savings. Also, even if it is a small bite, heirs will still have to wait until the claims period ends – 6 months in Illinois – before receiving their distribution. With a trust, there is no probate. Still, while tax savings trusts are generally more applicable to the wealthy, who needs to ensure that they receive the benefits of tax savings and the distribution and sooner rather than later – wealthy beneficiaries or beneficiaries who are below the highest tax bracket? I cast my vote for those who need the money for college tuition, medical bills, or a mortgage payment.
- The trustee is not the owner of the trust assets because the relationship between trust, trustee, and beneficiary is a legal fiction.
Fact: The trustee is the legal owner of the trust assets. With a “self-settled trust,” the grantor (trust creator) can be the trustee and beneficiary, if the designation is proper under state law. Some grantors are comfortable with a different trustee and don’t require a self-settled trust; some are not. However, if the grantor and trustee are different persons, the grantor can hold the trustee legally accountable if the trustee does not comply with the trust terms. Some colleagues call the relationship as “legal fiction” and it could be interpreted that way. But, consider this: If your home is subject to a mortgage, can the bank come in and tell you what color to paint your walls or that you can’t tear down a wall or put in a closet? No. Similarly, if your house is subject to a trust you created and your son is trustee, he cannot tell you to move or paint the house blue, unless you give him that authority in the trust.
- Only attorneys can create trusts.
Truth: A trust is a legally binding agreement. A legally binding agreement generally requires 2 parties who intend to enter into a mutually beneficial exchange, an offer of benefit, and acceptance of the offer. The parties are not required to be attorneys. Caveat: Agreements can be challenged by parties to the agreement or by intended third party beneficiaries, and that is why attorneys should usually be consulted when creating a trust. Those who say that a trust cannot be challenged by third parties are not considering what is legally referred to as “remaindermen,” and what folks like you and I call “grandkids.”
- A trust is needed only when a great deal of money is at stake.
Truth: A trust is needed especially if a limited amount of income at stake, in case you become incapacitated, even temporarily. If you’re a trustee, with a back-up (“successor”) trustee, and you become temporarily incapacitated, the successor trustee will manage the trust until you recover. If you don’t have a trust, your family will have to petition probate court to have you declared incapacitated and appoint someone to look after your financial affairs and possibly a guardian until you recover. This process costs money that will be probably taken out of your limited income.