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When is a Trust Not a Trust?

Similar to the bad joke, “When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar!” Ha! Similarly, but not as punny, we might well say, “When is a trust not a trust? When it’s a Totten trust!”

A Totten trust, also known as a savings account trust or a poor man’s will, is not a trust at all. Rather a Totten trust is simply a name given to a type of savings account. In this savings account, the depositor opens an account with her name designated “as trustee for” someone else. In a Totten trust, there is nothing stopping the depositor from withdrawing the funds for her own use, at any time during her life. Upon her death, any funds remaining are distributed to the so-called “beneficiary.”

Despite the confusing terms, no trust exists. The so-called “trustee” is not obligated to hold the property for the benefit of anyone, including the so-called beneficiary. Rather, the depositor can withdraw funds for her own use at any time during her life.

A Bit of History

The name—Totten trust—came from a New York case where their legality was tested, called In re Totten. The court ruled it was fine for one to open a banking account as a trustee for another person, who had not right to the funds until the account owner passed away. Previously courts had not allowed this under the objection that the situation could take the place of a will, which required more formality than this bank account scenario. To legally maneuver around this the Totten court called the account a “tentative trust” in which the account owner acts as trustee of the funds that will someday go to the trust’s beneficiary. After this decision other state legislatures authorized and regulated such accounts. Often they were referred to payable-on-death accounts in lieu of the term Totten trusts, but regardless of name, the result is the same.

Iowa & Totten Trusts

In states like Iowa, where Totten trusts are recognized, the proceeds for the account pass to the named beneficiary outside of the probate process. The treatment is just like a POD (“payable on death”) account or TOD (“transfer on death”) account.

Iowa recognizes Totten trusts generally, but specifically excludes them from the Iowa Trust Code. Iowa law describes legal trusts as follows:

Trust’ means an express trust, charitable or noncharitable, with additions thereto, wherever and however created, including a trust created or determined by a judgment or decree under which the trust is to be administered in the manner of an express trust. ‘Trust’ does not include [a] Totten trust account. Iowa Code 633A.1102(18)(a) (emphasis added).

When is a trust not a trust? Hopefully, thanks to this blog post, you now know that Totten trusts are not true trusts. I’ve written quite a bit on real trusts and would be happy to talk with you about what sort of trust may be right for you. Give me a call at or shoot me an email.

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