Nobody, including me, likes to think about death. But it is inevitable, as I was reminded during a recent hospitalization for major surgery. Thankfully, because of the excellent surgeons, nurses and my friends, I came through the experience successfully.
After I recovered, I learned from the doctors I had been very close to death. When I got home and was feeling better, one of the first things I did was review my estate plan.
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In the process, I discovered my old living trust had become nearly worthless. The primary reason was, like most real estate owners, in the last few years I refinanced my properties to take advantage of lower mortgage interest rates. As part of the process, the lenders required me to take my property titles out of my living trust, record the new mortgages, and then put the titles back into my living trust.
But I carelessly didn’t follow up and the title companies failed to re-deed my properties back into my living trust. The result was my living trust had become virtually empty because it was “unfunded.” If I could make that mistake, think of how many other homeowners and realty investors also have worthless, empty living trusts.
Especially because I wanted to revise my estate plan and change my beneficiaries, I decided to hire a trusts and estates attorney. The total cost, including recording fees, was about $1,300. That is far less than the 3 to 10 percent of gross assets it costs to probate a typical estate.
Frankly, although I am an attorney and could prepare my own living trust to avoid probate costs and delays, I’m glad I hired another attorney.
Among the extra improvements he suggested were (1) a durable power of attorney for lifetime asset management (in case I become unable to manage my assets); (2) a “living will” (also called an advanced health care directive) so the designated person can make health care decisions, such as taking me off life support if there is no reasonable hope for recovery; and (3) a “pour-over will” for any assets omitted from my new living trust. The attorney also made certain all my property titles were correctly transferred to fund my living trust.
EVERYBODY NEEDS A WILL. Shockingly, less than 20 percent of U.S. residents have a written will. For those who have a will, after they die their assets will be distributed according to their wills by the local probate court. Probating an estate, even a modest one, usually takes six to 18 months or longer before the heirs can receive their inheritances.
For individuals who die without a written will, the state law of intestate succession determines who will receive their assets. Especially in second marriages, the result is often not what the decedent would have wanted. Again, the local probate court supervises intestate succession distribution, subject to costs and delays.
However, if no written will and no relatives can be found, a person’s assets “escheat” to the state. That means the probate court will sell the assets and deposit the proceeds into the state treasury. That is not the result most people want.
HOW TO AVOID PROBATE. Even if you have a written will, it usually won’t avoid probate costs and delays. Well-known methods of probate court avoidance include holding real estate titles in joint tenancy with right of survivorship (or as tenants by the entireties between husband and wife) and holding bank accounts or stock brokerage accounts with “payable upon death” designations.
But all these methods have major drawbacks, especially when two or more persons own an asset but one becomes incapacitated such as by Alzheimer’s disease, a coma or a severe stroke.
A better alternative to avoid probate costs and delays for most individuals is a revocable living trust. This is simply a method of holding title to major assets, such as a home, investment property, bank accounts, common stocks, mutual funds, and other major assets.
When a living-trust grantor creates a living trust, he is its initial trustor, trustee and beneficiary. That means he can buy, sell, refinance and manage the assets as before.
However, if he becomes incapacitated, then the named successor trustee, such as a spouse or adult child, takes over management and can even sell the assets if necessary. There is no necessity to have a conservator appointed by the probate court. Husband and wife can either have individual living trusts or a joint living trust.
After a living-trust grantor dies, the successor trustee then distributes the living-trust assets to the individuals and/or charities named in the document. The local probate court does not become involved, so distribution usually is completed within six months.
ADVANTAGES OF LIVING TRUSTS. Among the many advantages of a revocable living trust are (1) easy amendments or revocation as desired by the trustor; (2) ownership benefits remain unchanged, including income-tax deductions and the principal-residence-sale tax exemption; (3) avoidance of multistate probates if real estate is owned in more than one state; (4) privacy because living trusts do not become public, as do written wills filed for probate; (5) the successor trustee manages the living-trust assets if the trustor becomes incapacitated; and (6) the successor trustee distributes the assets after the grantor’s death.
DISADVANTAGES OF LIVING TRUSTS. Among the few disadvantages of revocable living trusts are (1) no statutory period to limit creditor claims (as occurs in probate court); (2) the cost and inconvenience of “funding” the living trust (usually far less than the cost of probating an estate); (3) when refinancing mortgages, lenders usually require taking real estate out of the living trust for a moment while the mortgage papers are signed and recorded; and (4) a living-trust trustor needs a “pour-over will” or a “back-up will” for any assets that were not included in the living trust.
SUMMARY: Revocable living trusts offer many advantages and few disadvantages to avoid probate costs and delays for heirs as well as conservatorship during the grantor’s lifetime.
By avoiding involvement of the local probate court, living-trust beneficiaries usually receive their assets within six months after the decedent’s death. More details are in my new special report, “Pros and Cons of Living Trusts to Avoid Conservatorship and Probate Costs and Delays for Your Heirs,” available for $5 from Robert Bruss, 251 Park Road, Burlingame, Calif., 94010, or by credit card at 1-800-736-1736 or instant Internet delivery at www.BobBruss.com.
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