It is a common misconception that trusts, or trust funds as they are commonly called, are only useful for wealthy people. When set up properly, trusts can be appropriate for people with minor children or those who want to avoid having their estate go through probate upon death. These are basic facts about trusts – but, be sure to consult a licensed attorney experienced with estate planning and trust matters before making any final decisions about if one is right for you.

How Trusts Work
Creating a trust (or trust fund) establishes a legal entity that holds property or assets for the person who created it. The person who creates the trust can be called a grantor, donor, or settlor. When the grantor creates the trust he or she appoints a person or entity (like the trust department of a bank) to manage the trust. This person or entity is called a trustee. The grantor also chooses someone who will ultimately benefit from the trust, this person is the beneficiary. In some situations the grantor, trustee, and beneficiary are all the same person. In this case, the grantor should also appoint a successor trustee and beneficiary in case he or she dies or becomes incapacitated. A trust is a helpful estate planning tool because after death a trust doesn’t go through the probate process like a will does.
Reasons To Set Up A Trust
Some common reasons for setting up a trust include:

  • Providing for minor children or family members who are inexperienced or unable to handle financial matters
  • Providing for management of personal assets should one become unable to handle them oneself
  • Avoiding probate and immediately transferring assets to beneficiaries upon death
  • Reducing estate taxes and providing liquid assets to help pay for them
  • The terms of a will are public while the terms of a trust are not so privacy makes a trust an attractive option

Types of Trusts
Trusts can be living (inter vivos) or after-death (testamentary). A living trust is one that a grantor sets up while still alive and an after-death trust is usually established by a will after one’s death. Living trusts can be irrevocable (can’t be changed) or revocable (can be changed) although revocable trusts don’t receive the same tax shelter benefits as irrevocable ones do. The most popular type is the revocable living trust. If there’s a specific purpose in mind for the trust, dozens of different options exist. Some examples include charitable trusts, bypass trusts, spendthrift trusts, and life insurance trusts. New laws have even established a trust that will care for a pet after one’s death.

Setting Up A Trust
Once you’ve decided to set up a trust it is important to remember that a trust, by design, can be very flexible and a grantor has the right – and should take advantage of this right – within the law, to tailor it to meet the anticipated the needs of the beneficiary. Working with an experienced attorney that specializes in estate and trust issues and knows the specific state regulations can help get the maximum benefit from the trust.

Some things to consider when setting up the trust include:

  • The grantor has the right to specify exactly how the money in the trust is invested. The grantor and the trustee might have very different ideas about investment strategies, so make sure this gets clearly defined.
  • The grantor has the right to specify exactly how the assets should be divvied up down to details like including an annual cost of living adjustment for the beneficiary or paying for travel expenses for others to visit the beneficiary in the case of illness.
  • Always be sure to include a “trustee removal clause” – trusts that don’t have this clause take away the beneficiary’s right to fire the trustee if unsatisfied with the service being provided. Remember that the grantor can always add a provision that requires the beneficiary to select a new trustee from legitimate bank trust departments. Contact your state Department of Financial Institutions to get a list of licensed trust departments.
  • If the grantor wants to ensure that upon death any assets that remain outside of the trust are transferred to it, he or she should consider having a “pour-over” will to accomplish this.
  • Upon establishment of the trust the grantor must complete the process of setting up the trust by transferring his or her assets into the trust. Failure to do this properly makes the trust null and void. This means that upon the grantor’s death the state will decide who gets the assets and cares for minor children.

Protect Yourself From Trust Scams and Fraud
If someone approaches you to set up a trust be very cautious. Before signing any papers to create a living trust, will or other kind of trust make sure to explore all options and shop around for this service just as you would for any other. Also:

  • Avoid high-pressure sales tactics and high speed sales pitches.
  • Avoid salespeople who give the impression that AARP is backing or selling the product – AARP does not endorse living trust products.
  • Do your homework and get information about local probate laws from the Clerk or Register of Wills.
  • If someone tries to sell a living trust to you ask if they are an attorney. Some states restrict sales of living trusts by licensed attorneys.
  • If you buy a trust in your home or another location that is not the seller’s permanent place of business remember you are entitled to take advantage of the Cooling Off Rule and cancel the transaction within 3 business days.