These days many people choose a revocable living trust instead of relying on a will or joint ownership in their estate plan. They like the cost and time savings, plus the added control over assets that a living trust can provide.
For example, when properly prepared, a living trust can avoid the public, costly and time-consuming court processes at death (probate) and incapacity (conservatorship or guardianship). It can let you provide for your spouse without disinheriting your children, which can be important in second marriages. It can save estate taxes. And it can protect inheritances for children and grandchildren from the courts, creditors, spouses, divorce proceedings, and irresponsible spending.
Still, many people make a big mistake that sends their assets right into the court system: they don’t fund their trusts.
What is “funding” my trust?
Funding your trust is the process of transferring your assets from you to your trust. To do this, you physically change the titles of your assets from your individual name (or joint names, if married) to the name of your trust. You will also change most beneficiary designations to your trust.
Who controls the assets in my trust?
The trustee you name will control the assets in your trust. Most likely, you have named yourself as trustee, so you will still have complete control. One of the key benefits of a revocable living trust is that you can continue to buy and sell assets just as you do now. You can also remove assets from your living trust should you ever decide to do so.
Why is funding my trust so important?
If you have signed your living trust document but haven’t changed titles and beneficiary designations, you will not avoid probate. Your living trust can only control the assets you put into it. You may have a great trust, but until you fund it (transfer your assets to it by changing titles), it doesn’t control anything. If your goal in having a living trust is to avoid probate at death and court intervention at incapacity, then you must fund it now, while you are able to do so.
What happens if I forget to transfer an asset?
Along with your trust, your attorney will prepare a “pour over will” that acts like a safety net. When you die, the will “catches” any forgotten asset and sends it to your trust. The asset will probably go through probate first, but then it can be distributed according to the instructions in your trust.
Who is responsible for funding my trust?
You are ultimately responsible for making sure all of your appropriate assets are transferred to your trust.
Won’t my attorney do this?
Typically, you will transfer some assets and your attorney will handle some. Most attorneys will transfer your real estate, then provide you with instructions and sample letters for your other assets. Ideally, your attorney should review each asset with you, explain the procedure, and help you decide who will be responsible for transferring each asset. Once you understand the process, you may decide to transfer many of your assets yourself and save on legal fees.
How difficult is the funding process?
It’s not difficult, but it will take some time. Because living trusts are now so widely used, you should meet with little or no resistance when transferring your assets. For some assets, a short assignment document will be used. Others will require written instructions from you. Most can be handled by mail or telephone.
Some institutions will want to see proof that your trust exists. To satisfy them, your attorney will prepare what is often called a certificate of trust. This is a shortened version of your trust that verifies your trust’s existence, explains the powers given to the trustee and identifies the trustees, but it does not reveal any information about your assets, your beneficiaries and their inheritances.
While the process isn’t difficult, it’s easy to get sidetracked or procrastinate. Just make funding your trust a priority and keep going until you’re finished. Make a list of your assets, their values and locations, then start with the most valuable ones and work your way down. Remember why you are doing this, and look forward to the peace of mind you’ll have when the funding of your trust is complete.
Which assets should I put in my trust?
The general idea is that all of your assets should be in your trust. However, as we’ll explain, there are a few assets you may not want in, or that cannot be put into, your trust. Also, your attorney may have a valid reason (like avoiding a potential lawsuit) for leaving a certain asset out of your trust.
Generally, assets you want in your trust include real estate, bank/saving accounts, investments, business interests and notes payable to you. You will also want to change most beneficiary designations to your trust so those assets will flow into your trust and be part of your overall plan. IRAs, retirement plans and other exceptions are addressed later.
Will putting real estate in my trust cause any inconveniences?
In most cases, you will notice little difference. You may even find it easy to transfer real estate you own to your living trust, and to purchase new real estate in the name of your trust. Refinancing may not be as easy. Some lending institutions require you to conduct the business in your personal name and then transfer the property to your trust. While this can be annoying, it is a minor inconvenience that is easily satisfied.
Because your living trust is revocable, transferring real estate to your trust should not disturb your current mortgage in any way. Even if the mortgage contains a “due on sale or transfer” clause, retitling the property in the name of your trust should not activate the clause. There should be no effect on your property taxes because the transfer does not cause your property to be reappraised. Also, having your home in your trust will have no effect on your being able to use the capital gains tax exemption when you sell it.
Also, having your trust as the owner on your homeowner, liability and title insurance may make it easier for a successor trustee to conduct business for you. Check with your agent.
What about out-of-state property?
If you own property in another state, transferring it to your living trust will prevent a conservatorship and/or probate in that state. Your attorney can contact a title company or an attorney in that state to handle the transfer for you.
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