You Need a Will. What About a Trust?
Having a legal will is an essential step to help ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes. However, in some cases you may also want to make provisions through a trust.
Unlike a will, certain trusts might accomplish goals during your lifetime, provide greater control of your assets after your death, offer tax benefits, and/or avoid the often expensive and time-consuming probate process.
Basic Terms and Structures
A trust is a legal arrangement under which one person or institution controls property given by another person for the benefit of a third party. The person giving the property is referred to as the trustor (or grantor), the person controlling the property is the trustee, and the person for whom the trust operates is the beneficiary. With some trusts, you can name yourself as the trustor, the trustee, and the beneficiary.
A testamentary trust becomes effective upon your death and is usually established by your last will and testament. One common use of a testamentary trust is to ensure that assets left to children or others are distributed by a trustee who is chosen by you to carry out your wishes and work in the best interests of your heirs.
A living trust takes effect during your lifetime. When you set up a living trust, you transfer the title of all the assets you wish to place in the trust from you as an individual to the trust. Technically, you no longer own the transferred assets. If you name yourself as trustee, you maintain control of the assets and can buy, sell, or give them away as you see fit. However, this option may negate any estate tax benefits.
Living trusts can be either revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust can be dissolved or amended at any time while the grantor is still alive. An irrevocable trust may be modified or revoked only with the consent of the trustee and the beneficiary, depending on state laws. Both types of living trusts avoid probate and may provide other benefits not offered by a will or a testamentary trust (see chart). A testamentary trust is irrevocable by definition, but the grantor could change it by amending the will that established the trust.
Other Types of Trusts
A variety of trusts could be used to meet specific needs. Here are three of the most common.
- A charitable trust enables you to provide a charitable organization with a regular income for a set period or a lump sum at the end of the period.
- An incentive trust makes the transfer of assets to heirs contingent on their meeting goals or expectations, such as attaining higher education or starting a family.
- A supplemental or special-needs trust can help provide for a disabled child and may ensure that the child qualifies for government assistance programs.
Trusts involve up-front costs and often have ongoing administrative fees. The use of trusts involves a complex web of tax rules and regulations. You should consider the counsel of an experienced estate planning professional and your legal and tax advisors before implementing a trust strategy.