4. Doesn't joint ownership avoid probate?
Not really. Using joint ownership usually just postpones
probate. With most jointly owned assets, when one owner dies, full ownership does transfer to the surviving owner without probate. But if that owner dies without adding a new joint owner, or if both owners die at the same time, the asset must be probated before it can go to the heirs.
Watch out for other problems. When you add a co-owner, you lose control. Your chances of being named in a lawsuit and of losing the asset to a creditor are increased. There could be gift and/or income tax problems. And since a will does not control most jointly owned assets, you could disinherit your family.
With some assets, especially real estate, all owners must sign to sell or refinance. So if a co-owner becomes incapacitated, you could find yourself with a new "co-owner" -- the court -- even if the incapacitated owner is your spouse.
5. Why would the court get involved at incapacity?
If you can't conduct business due to mental or physical incapacity (dementia, stroke, heart attack, etc.), only a court appointee can sign for you -- even if you have a will. (Remember, a will only goes into effect after
Once the court gets involved, it usually stays involved until you recover or die and it, not your family, will control how your assets are used to care for you. This public, probate process can be expensive, embarrassing, time consuming and difficult to end. It does not replace probate at death, so your family may have to go through court proceedings twice!
6. Does a durable power of attorney prevent this?
A durable power of attorney lets you name someone to manage your financial affairs if you are unable to do so. However, many financial institutions will not honor one unless it is on their form. And, if accepted, it may work too well, giving someone a "blank check" to do whatever he/she wants with your assets. It can be very effective when used with a living trust, but is riskier when used alone.
7. What is a living trust?
A living trust is a legal document that, just like a will, contains your instructions for what you want to happen to your assets when you die. But, unlike a will, a living trust can avoid probate at death, control all of your assets, and prevent the court from controlling your assets if you become incapacitated.
8. How does a living trust avoid probate and prevent court control of assets at incapacity?
When you set up a living trust, you transfer assets from your
name to the name of your
trust, which you
control -- such as from "Bob and Sue Smith, husband and wife" to "Bob and Sue Smith, trustees under trust dated (month/day/year)."
no longer own anything; everything now belongs to your trust. So, there is nothing for the courts to control when you die or become incapacitated. The concept is simple, but this is what keeps you and your family out of court.
9. Do I lose control of the assets in my trust?
Absolutely not. You keep full control. As trustee of your trust, you can do anything you could do before -- buy and sell assets, change or even cancel your trust. That's why it's called a revocable
living trust. You even file the same tax returns. Nothing changes but the names on the titles.
10. Is it hard to transfer assets into my trust?
No, and your attorney, trust officer, financial adviser and insurance agent can help. Typically, you will change titles on real estate, stocks, CDs, bank accounts, investments, insurance and other assets with titles. Most living trusts also include jewelry, clothes, art, furniture, and other assets that do not have titles.
Some beneficiary designations (for example, insurance policies) should also be changed to your trust, so the court can't control them if a beneficiary is incapacitated or no longer living when you die. (IRA, 401(k), etc. can be exceptions.)
11. Doesn't this take a lot of time?
It will take some
time -- but you
can do it now, or you can pay the courts and attorneys to do it for
you later. One of the benefits of a living trust is that all of your assets are brought together under one plan. Don't delay "funding" your trust; it can only protect assets that have been transferred into it.
12. Should I consider a corporate trustee?
You may decide to be the trustee of your trust. However, some people select a corporate trustee (bank or trust company) to act as trustee or co-trustee now, especially if they don't have the time, ability or desire to manage their trusts, or if one or both spouses are ill. Corporate trustees are experienced investment managers, they are objective and reliable, and their fees are usually very reasonable.
13. If something happens to me, who has control?
If you and your spouse are co-trustees, either can act and have instant control if one becomes incapacitated or dies. If something happens to both of you, or if you are the only trustee, the successor trustee you personally selected will step in. If a corporate trustee is already your trustee or co-trustee, they will continue to manage your trust for you.
14. What does a successor trustee do?
If you become incapacitated, your successor trustee looks after your care and manages your financial affairs for as long as needed, using your assets to pay your expenses. If you recover, you resume control. When you die, your successor trustee pays your debts, files your tax returns and distributes your assets. All can be done quickly and privately, according to instructions in your trust, without
15. Who can be successor trustees?
Successor trustees can be individuals (adult children, other relatives, or trusted friends) and/or a corporate trustee. If you choose an individual, you should also name some additional successors in case your first choice is unable to act.
16. Does my trust end when I die?
Unlike a will, a trust doesn't have to die with you. Assets can stay in your trust, managed by the trustee you selected, until your beneficiaries reach the age(s) you want them to inherit. Your trust can continue longer to provide for a loved one with special needs, or to protect the assets from beneficiaries' creditors, spouses and future death taxes.
17. How can a living trust save on estate taxes?
Your estate will have to pay federal estate taxes if its net value when you die is more than the "exempt" amount at that time. (Nebraska also has its own inheritance tax.) If you are married, your living trust can include a provision that will let you and your spouse use both of your exemptions, saving a substantial amount of money for your loved ones.
18. Doesn't a trust in a will do the same thing?
Not quite. A will can contain wording to create a testamentary trust to save estate taxes, care for minors, etc. But, because it's part of your will, this trust cannot go into effect until after you die and the will is probated. So it does not avoid probate and provides no
protection at incapacity.
19. Is a living trust expensive?
Not when compared to all of the costs of court interference at incapacity and death. How much you
pay will depend primarily on your goals and what you want to accomplish.
20. How long does it take to get a living trust?
It should only take a few weeks to prepare the legal documents after you make the basic decisions.
21. Should I have an attorney do my trust?
Yes, but you need the right
attorney. A local attorney who has considerable experience in living trusts and estate planning will be able to give you valuable guidance and peace of mind that your trust is prepared and funded properly.
22. If I have a living trust, do I still need a will?
Yes, you need a "pour-over" will that acts as a safety net if you forget to transfer an asset to your trust. When you die, the will "catches" the forgotten asset and sends it into your trust. The asset may have to go through probate first, but it can then be distributed as part of your overall living trust plan. Also, if you have minor children, a guardian will need to be named in the will.
23. Is a "living will" the same as a living trust?
No. A living trust is for financial
affairs. A living will is for medical
affairs; it lets others know how you feel about life support in terminal situations.
24. Are living trusts new?
No, they've been used successfully for hundreds of years.
25. Who should have a living trust?
Age, marital status and wealth don't really matter. If you own titled assets and want your loved ones (spouse, children or parents) to avoid court interference at your death or incapacity, you should probably have a living trust. You may also want to encourage other family members to have one so you
won't have to deal with the courts at their
incapacity or death.
26. Summary of Living Trust Benefits