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(Legal) Word of the Day: Trust

In my ongoing efforts to break down the legalese barriers that tend to separate lawyers from the real world, and have increased quality communication, here’s another Fun with Legal Words post. Today’s word is “trust.”

In this context, and in the simplest terms, a trust is a legal agreement between three parties: settlor, trustee, and beneficiary. Let’s look at each of these three parties, and then delve more into how a trust works. 

Settlor

All trusts have a settlor, sometimes called the “donor” or “trustor.” The settlor creates the trust, and also has legal authority to transfer property to the trust. 

Man reading business section of paper

Trustee

The trustee can be any person or entity that can take title to property on behalf of a beneficiary. The trustee is responsible for managing the property according to the rules outlined in the trust document, and must do so in the best interests of the beneficiary.

Beneficiary

The beneficiary is the person or entity benefiting from the trust. The beneficiary can be one person/entity or multiple parties (true also of settlor and trustee). Multiple trust beneficiaries do not have to have the same interests in the trust property. Also, trust beneficiaries do not have to even exist at the time the trust is created (such as a future grandchild, or charitable foundation that hasn’t been set up yet).

Trust Property

A trust can be either funded or unfunded. By funded, we mean that trust property has been placed “inside” the trust. This property is sometimes called the “principal” or the “corpus.” A trust is unfunded until property are transferred into your name as trustee of the trust.

Any Asset

House

Any asset can be held by a trust. Trust property can be real estate, intangible property, business interests, and personal property. Some common examples of trust property include farms, buildings, vacation homes, money, stocks, bonds, collections, personal possessions, and vehicles.

“Imaginary Container”

We speak of putting assets “in” a trust, but assets don’t actually change location. Think of a trust as an “imaginary container.” It’s not a geographical place that protects something (such as a garage protects your car), but a form of ownership that holds it for your benefit. For instance, on your car title the owner blank would read “The John Smith Trust.” It’s common to put real estate (farms, homes, vacation condos) and entire accounts (savings, checking, credit union, and brokerage accounts) into a trust.

Baskets

After the trust is funded, the trust property will still be in the same place before the trust was created—your land where it always was, your car in the garage, your money in the bank, your stamp collection in the study… The only difference is the property will have a different owner: “The Jane Jones Trust,” not Jane Jones.

Transfer of Ownership

Putting property in a trust transfers it from personal ownership to the trustee, who holds the property for the beneficiary. The trustee has legal title to the trust property. For most purposes, the law treats trust property as if it were now owned by the trustee and trusts have separate taxpayer identification numbers.

But, trustees are not the full owners of trust property. Trustees have a legal duty to use trust property as provided in the trust agreement and permitted by law. The beneficiaries retain what is known as equitable title: the right to benefit from trust property as specified in the trust.

Assets to Beneficiary

The settlor provides terms in a trust agreement as to how the fund’s assets are to be distributed to a beneficiary. The settlor can provide for the distribution of funds in any way that is not against the law or against public policy.

Types of Trusts Almost Limitless

The types of trusts are almost limitless. Trusts may be classified by their purpose, duration, creation method, or by the nature of the trust property.

Benefits of Trusts

The potential benefits of trusts are immense. The benefits include avoiding probate (and other costs savings), privacy, and helping with every family’s unique needs. 

Avoid Probate

A major benefit of trusts is avoiding probate. This is because, upon death, the trust dictates how trust property will pass. Avoiding probate saves your loved ones both time and money as the probate process is time-consuming, taking anywhere from several months to a year to complete. Sometimes, depending on the size of the estate, it can take even longer. Probate can also be expensive. Attorney’s fees alone can amount to two percent of the total estate, or even more in extraordinary cases. For some, two percent of their assets can be a very high number. Often, the cost of creating a trust is considerably less expensive than the cost of probate would have been.

Privacy

When a will is filed with an Iowa court upon death, the will becomes a public record. Trusts, on the other hand, remain private documents. Many folks, especially in small towns, have a strong desire to keep business affairs private.

Second Marriages and Blended Families

Dad with kid on beach

Trusts are also helpful in situations involving second marriages or blended families. When married couples have children from previous relationships, the surviving spouse has the ability to disinherit stepchildren. A trust can remedy this situation by providing lifetime benefits to the surviving spouse but, after his or her death, leaving assets to children and stepchildren.

Special Needs Trusts

Families with members who have special care needs must take a careful estate planning approach. For example, when a person receives government assistance due to a disability, a gift or inheritance might result in denial of benefits. However, assets can be left in certain types of trusts (for example, a special needs trust), to provide for supplemental needs while still allowing persons with disabilities to continue to receive benefits.

Let’s Get Started

You probably still have some questions on trusts…which is why I’m here! Don’t hesitate to contact me. I offer a free one-hour consultation at which point we can discuss your personal situation, see if a trust is right for you, and set up the steps to take for success.

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