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person with sparkler spooky

Forget the scariest movies of all time, did you hear the unnerving tale about the will admitted to probate? Frightening stuff!

Some folks are surprised, even shocked, to learn that a will doesn’t avoid probate, but it doesn’t. Whether you die intestate (no will), or even with a will, your estate must pass through Iowa probate court. If you have an estate plan (including a will) this process is much more smooth and simple for your loved ones, because you’ve clearly told them, and the court, how you want your property dispersed. But, even with a basic estate plan, this is still a judicial process. (Plus your will becomes public record when it goes through probate.) The only practical way to avoid probate is through a revocable living trust. The “living”part of this means a trust that is established and funded by you during your lifetime.

Trust in the Trust

A trust can sound somewhat elusive. And you may think it’s reserved just for the very wealthy, like that strange couple that live in the huge, dark mansion on the hill. However, a trust can be an incredibly important tool in many situations and provide multiple advantages.

spooky haunted mansion

Save Time & Money

Time

One of the major benefit of a trust is that it enables your loved ones and your favorite charities—your beneficiaries—to avoid the time and financial costs of probating a will. This is because, upon death, the property and assets are already distributed to the trust. Otherwise the probate process can take anywhere from several months to a more than a year to complete.

Fees

Probate can also be expensive considering fees. Fees and costs can reduce your estate by 4%, or even more. Executor’s fees, and attorney’s fees, are both authorized by Iowa statute to be as high as 2% each, for a total of 4%, and that doesn’t include court costs. While that may not sound like a lot, it can actually equate to a good chunk of money that you would most certainly rather pass along to your heirs or to your favorite charity. Far more often than not, the cost of creating a trust is considerably less expensive than the cost of probate would be.

The Case of Frank E. Stein

bats in the sky

A simple example. Let’s suppose Frank E. Stein’s estate is worth $2 million. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but consider things like a large, expensive house, or a second home, or a vacation home, or a farm, or a family business, can rather easily push an estate into the multi-millions territory. Again, with Frank’s estate worth $2 million, a “shave” of 4% reduces the estate by $80,000. That’s $80,000 that could have gone to Frank’s favorite charity, The Home for Wayward Bats. A revocable living trust, completed by a qualified estate planner, would cost around $2,400.

Privacy

Revocable living trust offers an additional benefit: privacy. When a will is filed with the Iowa probate court upon death, the will becomes a public record. Trusts, on the other hand, remain private documents. You may not want your friends, neighbors, monsters, and others to know the contents of your will. Like all good mysteries, some things are better left a mystery.

Start a Conversation

scary forest path

Considering all the aspects of a trust doesn’t have to feel like a twisty path through a scary forest straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’m more than happy and willing to be your guide. Don’t hesitate to reach out; email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call at (515) 371-6077.

man writing on trust paper

If you’re unsure of what a trust is and how it works, you probably don’t have one. And, if you don’t have a trust, you’re not alone. About 57 percent of U.S. adults don’t have an estate planning document like a will or a trust even though they believe having one is important.

What Is a Trust? How Does It Work?

If you haven’t stopped to consider how a trust might help ensure that your wishes are followed and your assets are handled, you could be making a critical estate planning mistake.

A trust is simply a legal agreement among three parties—settlortrustee, and beneficiary—that provides instructions on how and when to pass assets to the trust’s beneficiaries. Let’s look at the role of each of these three parties, and then delve into how trusts work.

Settlor

A settlor—sometimes called the “donor, “grantor,” or “trustor”—is the person who creates the trust and has the legal authority to transfer assets into it.  

Trustee

The trustee is the person who agrees to accept, manage, and protect the assets delivered by the settlor. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to administer the assets according to the trust’s instructions and distribute the trust income and principal according to the rules outlined in the trust document and in the best interests of the beneficiary.

A trustee can be one, two, or more people. A trustee can also be what is known as a “corporate trustee,” such as a financial institution (like a bank) or a law firm that performs trustee duties and charge fees for their services. There are no formal requirements for being a trustee and nonprofessionals frequently serve as a trustee for family members and friends.

Beneficiary

The beneficiary is the person or entity benefiting from the trust. The beneficiary can be one person or entity or multiple parties. Also, trust beneficiaries don’t even have to exist at the time the trust is created (such as in the case of a future grandchild or charitable foundation that has not yet been established).

Trust Property

A trust can be either funded or unfunded. “Funded” mean that the settlor’s assets—sometimes called the “principal” or the “corpus”—have been placed into the trust. A trust is unfunded until the assets are in it (failing to fund a trust is a common estate planning mistake). 

Trust Assets

Trusts can hold just about any kind of asset: real estate, intangible property (like patents), business interests, and personal property. Common trust properties include farms, buildings, vacation homes, stocks, bonds, savings and checking accounts, collections, personal possessions, and vehicles.

“Imaginary Container”

Think of a trust as an “imaginary container” that holds and protects your assets. 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 artwork on the wall, your money in the bank, your comic book collection in the den. The only difference is the asset will have a different owner: “The Jane Jones Trust,” rather than 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 what is called “legal title” to the trust property and, in most instances, the law treats trust property as if it were now owned by the trustee. Each trust has its own taxpayer identification number, just like an individual.

But trustees are not the full owners of trust property. Trustees have a legal duty to use trust property as directed in the trust agreement and as allowed 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 directing 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. The near-limitless flexibility of trusts is a primary advantage for setting one up.

Types of trusts

A joke among estate planners says that the only limit to trusts is the imagination of the lawyers involved.  It’s true, though, that the number and kind of trusts are virtually unlimited.

Let’s start by taking a look at the four primary categories of trusts:

Inter vivos and Testamentary Trusts

Trusts that are set up during the settlor’s lifetime are called “inter vivos” trusts. Those that arise upon the death of the settlor, generally by operation of a will, are called “testamentary” trusts. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of trusts, and how one decides depends upon the goals and purposes of the settlor.

Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts

Inter vivos and testamentary trusts can be broken down into two more categories: revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. A revocable trust can be changed at any time during the settlor’s lifetime. Second thoughts about a provision in the trust or about who should be a beneficiary might prompt modification of the trust’s terms. The settlor can alter parts of the trust or revoke the entire thing.

Irrevocable Trust

An irrevocable trust is a type of trust that can’t be changed by the settlor after the agreement has been signed and the trust has been formed and funded. The terms of an irrevocable trust can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the settlor’s beneficiary or beneficiaries.

A revocable living trust becomes irrevocable when the settlor dies because he or she is no longer available to make changes to it. But a revocable trust can be designed to break into separate irrevocable trusts at the time of the grantor’s death for the benefit of children or other beneficiaries.

You might wonder, “Why make a trust irrevocable? Wouldn’t you want to maintain the ability to change your mind about the trust or its terms?”

Not necessarily.

Irrevocable trusts, such as irrevocable life insurance trusts, are commonly used to remove assets from a person’s estate and thus avoid them being taxed. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust gives those assets to the trustee and the trust beneficiaries forever. If a person no longer owns the assets, they don’t comprise or contribute to the value of his or her estate and so they aren’t subject to estate taxes upon death.

Revocable living trusts

There is no “one size fits all” trust—different kinds of trusts offer different benefits (and drawbacks) depending on a person’s circumstances. Age, number of children, health, and relative wealth are just a few of the factors to be considered. The most common trust my clients use is a revocable living trust, sometimes referred to by its abbreviation, “RLT.”

A revocable living trust—created while you’re alive and that can be revoked or amended by you—has three advantages over other kinds of trusts:

 1. Money-Saving

Establishing a revocable living trust helps avoid costly probate—the legal process required to determine that a will is valid. Probate generally eats up about two percent (2%) of an estate, which can add up to a chunk of change you’d probably rather see go to your beneficiaries.

Avoiding probate also means avoiding other fees, such as court costs, that go along with it.

2. Time-Saving

A revocable living trust not only eliminates the costs of probate, but the time-consuming process of probate as well. Here in Iowa, probate can take several months to a year, or sometimes even longer, leaving beneficiaries without their inheritances until the very end of the probate process. The transfer of assets in a trust is much faster.

3. Flexibility

Don’t want your 16-year-old niece to inherit a half-million dollars in one big lump sum? I agree it’s probably not a good idea.

A revocable living trust offers flexibility for the payout of an inheritance because you set the ground rules for when and how distributions are made. For example, you might decide your beneficiaries can receive certain distributions at specific ages (21, 25, 30, etc.), or for reaching certain milestones, such as marriage, the birth of a child, or graduation from college.

last will and testament

Drawbacks

Despite the significant advantages of establishing a revocable living trust, there are drawbacks people should be aware of

For starters, trusts are more expensive to prepare than basic estate plan documents such as wills. However, the costs associated with sitting down with a lawyer and carefully putting in place a trust is, in my opinion, greatly outweighed by the money your estate will save in the end.

Creating a trust can also be an administrative bother at the start of the process because assets (farm, business, stock funds, etc.) must be retitled in the name of the trust. But, all things considered, this is a small inconvenience that is greatly outweighed by the smooth operation of a trust when you pass away.

You Can Trust me to Talk About the Best Trust(s) for You

Interested in learning more about trusts or questioning if you need one? Feel free to reach out at any time by email, gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com, or on my cell, 515-371-6077. If you want to simply get started on an estate plan (everyone needs at least the basic documents in place!) check out my estate plan questionnaire, provided to you free, without any obligation.

bowl of heart candy

Thanks for reading the #GoFisch blog! Now through February 14 I’m sharing how flowers, jewelry, or chocolate are not the only gifts that say, “I love you.” While not explicitly romantic, a personalized, quality estate plan speaks to that lifelong consideration and care be it for your significant other, your children, or even simply yourself. 

Typical Valentine’s Day gifts usually come in the expected packaging—velvet or heart shaped-boxes topped with silky ribbons and complete with a red rose or a sappy card. But, an estate plan is not your typical Valentine’s present and therefore needs some special storage. You’re more than welcome to put a bow on the documents following the signing…finishing your estate plan is something worth celebrating! However, a gift bag won’t do for safely and securely protecting your estate plan.

I give my clients guidance on where to store their original estate plan documents because it should be both be kept private and safe, but should still be practical and accessible by those who need it such as your will’s executor or designated representative for financial matters. So, where specifically should your keep your original estate plan? There are a few different options.

In Your Home or Office

office space with flowers

When you think accessibility, the places you spend the majority of your time, such as your home or office, are going to be obvious choices. Some of my clients who’ve chosen this option even invested in a water- and fire-proof safe. (Of course, if you get a safe, folks who need to access the estate plan, such as a spouse or child, obviously need access to the lock combo!) In any case, put the plan in a spot that’s likely to be protected from flooding or fire. For example, a dark, dank basement may not be the best place to keep your original estate plan documents. However, in your home office, in your desk’s top locked drawer (assuming others have a key), would be a much better spot.

Caution: No Treasure Hunts

Some people think “hiding” their will is a solution to any security concerns. This, however, inhibits accessibility! Sure, people may not be able to find your will while you’re living, but that also means your loved ones are unlikely to find it when they need it in the case that you suddenly pass away or are incapacitated and cannot communicate where it is. This is problematic for multiple reasons. First, your wishes cannot formally be known and therefore not fulfilled, and if the document cannot be found, the presumption is you either did not make a plan or you intended to revoke/destroy it. In the case of your death, the court will then act as if you died “intestate,” or without a will. The long probate process will ensue, and after some substantial court fees, your estate will pass to your heirs-at-law as determined by state law. (Almost everyone I’ve ever met would have their estate pass according to their terms and not some impersonal law.)

Safety Deposit Box

 

I know many folks who keep their important documents like birth certificates and social security cards in their safety deposit box. And when it comes to your original estate plan documents, your safety deposit box is a good option. Except, and this is hugely important, the safety deposit box must be readily accessible by executors, agents, and other fiduciaries. This requires making sure that your bank or credit union has the “right people on file.” Also, don’t assume that just because both you and your spouse have access to the safety deposit box, that is sufficient. What if there’s a joint accident or joint disaster and you’re both incapacitated? Sit down and talk with your bank or credit union to make absolutely certain those who need access to the safety deposit box will definitely have access in case of an emergency. Otherwise, a court order may be required before your financial institution will grant access, which equates to more bureaucratic hold-ups costing time, money, and even worse, adding additional stress for loved ones.

safety deposit box

 With Your Designated Representative

So far, we’ve been talking about your original estate plan documents (with “wet” signatures). An original is always better than a copy. But a copy is better than nothing.  Consider giving a copy of your estate plan to the executor of your will or successor trustee of your revocable living trust, and other named fiduciaries.

The person you designate as your personal representative has the important job of settling your estate and they will need to be armed with your estate plan in order to reference your wishes and provide proof that they are authorized to take certain actions. This option makes a lot of sense considering this representative will have immediate cause to reference the paperwork following your death.

two people drinking tea

Up in the Cloud

I always recommend you retain a paper copy of your original estate plan, but there are many valid and secure options of also storing your key documents in the digital cloud. Like any financial, health, or other personal information accessible online, make certain you have a strong password and security. And, just like a paper version, at least your executor and other designated representatives will need to be able to access the plan when necessary. Whether that’s through an online beneficiary designation or by allocating the password to your executor or another trusted custodian, that’s up to you.

To recap: an estate plan can make a wonderful Valentine’s Day gift that shows love and commitment to your favorite people. And, since you spent time, effort, and money to create an estate plan that meets your goals, it’s essential to keep it in proper storage. Remember: if no one knows you created a plan or no one has access to it, it’s as if you never had one at all.

Before you can store your estate plan, you NEED an estate plan! The best place to get started is with my Estate Plan Questionnaire, or contact me.