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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.

Settlor (or Donor or Grantor)

The person who creates a trust is called the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor). It is the settlor’s intent which is of paramount importance. It is the intent of the settlor that determines whether a trust has been created.

Here’s a great read with a rundown on the basics of what a trust is:

Intent Is Everything

If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent that the recipient hold the property for someone else, then a trust has indeed been created. If the settlor transfers property with the intent that the recipient use the property for her own benefit, then NO trust has been created.

BONUS WORD! Precatory Trust

What if a settlor transfers property to a recipient with just a wish that the recipient use the property for the benefit of someone else, but does not impose any legal obligation? In such a situation, no legal trust is created. Instead, this is called a precatory trust, but is not a trust at all, because the settlor placed no legal responsibilities on the recipient. A precatory trust is, again, not a trust and is not governed by the law of trusts.

Three Easy Hypotheticals

  • Let’s look at three quick examples to make this clear. Mack gives stock to Julie. Mack intends that the stock be for Julie’s own use. Mack is NOT the settlor of a trust, because no trust has been created.

Stock market sheet

  • Grace gives a vacation house to Maddie, intending that Maddie hold the house for the benefit of Zach. Grace is the settlor of a trust. If a settlor transfers property to a recipient with the intent the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else, then a trust is created.

vacation home on lake

  • Thomas gives a coin collection to Parker, just wishing that Parker would hold the coins for Danna. This is a mere precatory trust, not a trust at all because the settlor is not imposing any legal responsibilities on the recipient.

coin collection

Questions? Let’s Talk.

When it comes to estate planning, I’m all about breaking down the legalese barriers. This hopefully clarified the definition of settlor, but you may have questions…which is great! Contact me to discuss further the status of your estate plan and decisions regarding your trust. Reach me by email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or phone at 515-371-6077.

A trust really isn’t as complicated as it first may seem. After all, there are only three parties to a trust.

A Settlor, Trustee, & Beneficiary

A trust is created when a property owner transfers the property to a person with the intent that the recipient holds the property for the benefit of someone else. So, there are three parties to a trust: (1) the owner who transfers the property (the settlor, or sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the person receiving the property (the trustee); and (3) the person for whose benefit the property is being held (the beneficiary).

Three men walking down the street

Note that although a trust involves three parties, it does not require three persons. One person can play multiple roles. For example, in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, it is quite common for the person establishing the trust to be the initial trustee and the principal beneficiary. In this situation, one person is all three parties – they are the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary.

What a Merger Means

There is one limitation to the rule of one person wearing multiple hats. The same person cannot be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary of the trust. In such an event, it is said merger occurs, and the trust is terminated. Why so? The essence of a trust is that it divides legal title from beneficial ownership, and merger ends this division.

In practical terms, however, merger is rarely an issue. “Wait!” you shout. You just said that in a typical revocable inter vivos trust, the person establishing the trust can be trustee and beneficiary. Yes, in this situation one person is all three parties – she is the settlor, the trustee, and the beneficiary. But, in almost all situations, one person isn’t the sole beneficiary. Such a trust will designate other beneficiaries who will benefit from the property after the settlor’s death. So, one person can indeed wear three hats.

Let’s Talk More About Trusts

Trusts aren’t that difficult to understand and also can provide so many helpful benefits. Want to learn more? Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. I offer a free one-hour consultation to everyone, without any obligation. I’d be happy to talk to you any time.

man reading newspaper

If spelling tests weren’t always your strong suit in school, fear not! Today’s legal word of the day is an easy one that’s having a momentary editorial heyday.

Ripped From the Headlines

As you probably heard, The New York Times took the highly unusual step of publishing an unsigned, anonymous op-ed entitled, “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The person was identified only as follows:

“…. a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

man with newspaper near train

Whodunnit?

The article led to a nationwide guessing game. Who is the senior official in the Trump administration who penned this “explosive” piece? Suspicion fell onto, of all people, Vice President Mike Pence. This is because the op-ed writer uses the word “lodestar,” and Pence has used this obscure word multiple times. (Pence vehemently denied he was the author, by the way.)

I don’t know who wrote the op-ed, and we may never know, but the real winner out of this news cycle is the word you never knew you needed in your vocabulary—lodestar!

So, What DOES Lodestar Mean?

Lodestar means “a star that leads or guides,” and is especially used in relation to the North Star.

timelapse of stars

Now, Let’s Talk About a Similar Kind of “Star”

At this point you’re like, “Gordon, this is a cool word I can def use in playing Scrabble, but what does it have to do with the law?”

Well, “lodestar” is a synonym and practically interchangeable with the word “polestar,” which is defined as a “directing principle; a guide.”

A court will use the term polestar like so: In this case, our polestar must be this principle . . .

Basically the court will use such-and-such as its guiding principle.

direction sign on a mountain

For example, in the law of wills, the Iowa Supreme Court stated In the Estate of Twedt that “the testator’s [maker of the will’s] intent is the polestar and if expressed must prevail.” You’ll see the same in the law of trusts, the intent of the settlor of a trust must be the polestar.

The word is also used in the law of charitable giving. The intent of the donor is the polestar which courts must follow if there are any issues. For example, suppose a donor posthumously donates $100,000 to a nonprofit, but the nonprofit no longer exists. What was the donor’s intent? Is it stated anywhere what the donor wanted to happen to the charitable funds if the nonprofit was no more? If not written, did the donor discuss the matter with anyone? To resolve any dispute involving a charitable gift, the guiding principle–the polestar–must be the donor’s intent.

Practical application of the Word Polestar

A major reason to have an estate plan is that YOU get to control your own future, rather than being controlled by outside forces or outside events. Through proper estate planning, you can be in total control of the answers to the following questions:

And if there are any questions or issues regarding your estate plan, lawyers and judges looking at your estate plan will make decisions based on YOUR intent. Your intent will be the polestar!

Don’t delay any longer – thank your lucky (North) stars you still have time to make a proper estate plan. I’d be happy to talk with you about your estate plan any time, or you can get started on organizing your important info in my free Estate Plan Questionnaire. I can be reached via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or by cell (515-371-6077). I’d truly love to hear from you.

Stacked books and notebook

What’s It All For?

In Hamilton: An American Musical, a perplexed Alexander Hamilton asks Aaron Burr, “What was it all for?” Regarding trusts, we know that all the work is for the beneficiary.

Classic Definition of “Trust” and “Beneficiary”

A trust is created when a property owner transfers property to a person with the intent that the recipient hold the property for the benefit of someone else. There are three parties to a trust: (1) the settlor (also called donor or grantor); (2) the trustee; and (3) the beneficiary. Every trust must have at least one beneficiary – a person for whose benefit the trust property is being held and who therefore has legal rights to enforce the trust.

Beneficiaries Must Be Sufficiently Definite

 

two people standing against white wall laughing

The beneficiaries must be described with sufficient detail that their identities can be determined. If the description of the beneficiaries is too vague or indefinite, then the trust will fail and the property will be returned to either the settlor or the settlor’s estate.

Let’s take two simple examples.

  • Alan establishes a trust for the benefit of his then-living children. The beneficiaries are sufficiently definite.
  • Sara establishes a trust for the benefit of all her friends. The beneficiaries are insufficiently definite.

Easy, right?

Exception: Charitable Trusts

There is one narrow, but critically important exception to the rule beneficiaries of a trust must be sufficiently definite. Charitable trusts–trusts established to fulfill a recognized charitable purpose – can be for the benefit of an indefinite group. For example, a charitable trust set up to provide scholarships to disadvantaged youth will be held valid.

Multiple Beneficiaries: Concurrent Interests or Successive Interests

Trusts can have more than one beneficiary and they commonly do. In cases of multiple beneficiaries, the beneficiaries may hold concurrent interests or successive interests. An example of concurrent interests is a group of beneficiaries identified as grandchildren of the settlor, who all receive distributions after their grandparents’ deaths. An example of successive interests is a trust in which one beneficiary has an interest for a term of years, and the other beneficiary holds a future interest, to become possessory only after the present interest terminates.

 

dad swinging children on beach

Special Remedies for Beneficiaries

There are several remedies available to an aggrieved beneficiary in the event of a breach of trust by a trustee. Such remedies include claims for damages, injunction to restrain a breach, tracing and/or recovery of trust property, among others. A beneficiary may be able to recoup damages, perhaps even from the trustee’s personal assets. If the trustee wrongfully disposes of trust property, the beneficiaries may be able to reclaim the property from a third party. Again, legal remedies for a breach of trust by a trustee are broad.

Let’s Talk More About Trust Beneficiaries

Interested in establishing a trust or having difficulty deciding on beneficiaries? Don’t hesitate to reach out; email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com. I offer a free one-hour consultation to everyone, without any obligation. I’d be happy to talk to you any time.

hammers and tools hanging in garage

Three Parties

I’ve previously written about the three parties necessary for every trust: (1) the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the trustee; and (3) the beneficiary.

Two Other Elements

Besides three parties, at least two other elements are necessary for a valid trust.

  1. The trust instrument is the document that sets forth the terms of the trust.
  2. The other necessary element is property. After all, the trustee must be holding something for the benefit of the beneficiary.

Property of the Trust

When laypersons use the word “property,” I believe they usually mean real estate. But, lawyers use the term “property” much, much more broadly, to mean literally any transferable interest. Sometimes trust property is also referred to as the res or corpus or assets of the trust. (Bonus words!)

Any property can be held in trust. Seriously, check out this list of 101 assets which would fit in a trust. You could likely think of literally hundreds more types or categories of property to place in your own individual trust.

Pour Over Trust

How about an unfunded trust that will receive property at some point in the future? Can you even do that?

Yes, that can certainly be done. This is usually called a pour over trust. (More bonus words!) The pour over trust deserves its own blog post. Briefly, a pour over trust is usually set up by language in a will. A will may validly devise property to a trust, established during the testator’s lifetime, and then funded at her death.

Example

Let’s take a very simple example. Kate has a lawyer write her will, including language that at her death all her Monster Truck memorabilia be placed in a trust for the benefit of her nieces and nephews. Only at Kate’s death will the property be transferred into the trust, not before.

monster truck as a type of property

Take Aways

The important points are that property is necessary, at some point, to make a trust valid, and that literally any transferable interest in property – anything! – can be held in a trust.

Let’s Talk Trusts

It can be difficult to determine on your own if a trust may be right for your personal situation. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take me up on my offer for a free one-hour consultation. Give me a call at 515-371-6077 or shoot me an email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.