A few days ago, I was explaining the concept of “funding” of trusts to some clients who were new to the world of estate planning and I was struck by the fact that what I had always thought were easy concepts to understand caused a lot of confusion to my clients and their understanding of how trusts operate. The two main areas of confusion appear to be in (1) figuring out exactly how trusts differ from wills and (2) the mechanics of how accounts are transferred into trusts causing trusts to become the new “owner” of those accounts. This article hopes to shed light on these two seemingly simple (or so I thought!) concepts – revocable living trusts and trust funding.
We’ve heard people use the word trusts in different settings and under different circumstances. Many people mistakenly believe that all trusts offer asset protection. However, not all trusts are made equal – trusts can either be living (i.e. inter-vivos trusts) or testamentary (i.e. those that become effective upon the death of an individual). All testamentary trusts are automatically irrevocable but living trusts can be either revocable or irrevocable. The person(s) setting up these trusts are interchangeably called Grantor(s), Trustor(s) or Settlor(s) of trusts.
Living trusts are typically stand-alone entities that become effective immediately upon the signing of the trust agreement. Those that are revocable are called Revocable Living Trusts or RLTs or Will substitutes. These RLTs allow a Grantor to set up the trust and retain full control of the trust assets by also being appointed as Trustee of the trusts. The Grantor can also enjoy the full benefits of the trust assets as a beneficiary. There are several benefits for setting up a RLT the most important one of which is that they are meant to avoid probate (i.e. court supervised process) upon death which is often considered to be ridden with hassle in some states. In contrast, Irrevocable Living Trusts are more difficult to be changed once set up. In this case, the Grantor transfers assets into an irrevocable trust by assignment, sale, gift or loan, then typically gives up control over the assets. The primary benefits of irrevocable trusts are that assets are removed from the Grantor’s estate upon his or her death thereby avoiding estate taxes; and these assets are protected from both the Grantor’s creditors as well as the creditors & predators of the beneficiaries. Properly designed trusts may even escape Medicaid recovery and preserve assets for the Grantor’s ultimate beneficiaries should the Grantor be receiving public benefits. Regardless of which irrevocable trust is used, these trusts are typically sophisticated planning techniques established as part of an individual or married couple’s advanced planning. They should always accompany a robust foundational plan complete with a Will and/or a RLT, a General Durable Power of Attorney and Advanced Healthcare Directive. For more information on the benefits of a RLT, check out our earlier posts on this subject1.
When it comes to “funding” trusts though, it is important to note that this term of art has to do with the act of transferring accounts into the trust or retitling assets into the name of the trusts and has nothing to do with refinancing or getting loans to trusts. The following visual imagery may help provide a better understanding how RLTs2 actually “receive” assets.
If you think of your trust as a cookie jar, then our firm would work with you to take your cookie jar from concept to design to set-up. Once you sign the trust agreement, your cookie jar is now ready to be filled with assets or ‘cookies’. And because your trust is like your alter-ego, it can do almost anything you can do. This means that if you have 5 bank accounts each at a different bank and you want to continue to bank at these 5 banks, then you can open 5 trust accounts at these banks. Our office would then provide you with the necessary documentation you need to present to your bank representative who will then open a new trust account and more often than not, it will have a new account number. Depending on the type of trust you are setting up (revocable or irrevocable), the account will either be associated to your social security number or have its own separate tax identification number or EIN# for income tax reporting going forward. This process of funding may involve several back and forth communications with institutions and can sometimes be challenging especially when a representative may be unfamiliar with trusts. This is when your choice of law firm become important so the firm can work with you and the representatives to see this process through to the end.
This article would not be considered complete if we did not address funding in connection with real property, businesses, and accounts with beneficiary designations. Here is a quick synopsis of how these assets are funded:
Real property must undergo a title change (i.e. the deed needs to reflect the new owner as the trust) in order for this to properly avoid probate. This deed must be recorded at the county clerk’s office just like any other deed. So long as the property is being transferred into a RLT, and the Grantor continues to reside in the property, a lender holding mortgage to the property cannot trigger the due on sale clause as the Grantor is protected by statute
Depending on how a business is structured (LLC, S Corp., C Corp.), a Grantor-owner’s interest could be assigned to the RLT
Accounts passing by beneficiary designations, typically retirement accounts, life insurance policies and/or brokerage and investment accounts with beneficiaries, must be amended to ensure the RLT (or its subtrusts for the various beneficiaries) is the primary beneficiary of these accounts.
While funding is a relatively straightforward process and may be handled the Grantor on his or her own, it is always better to do so under the guidance and counsel of the drafting attorney or let the drafting attorney’s office handle the funding process for an extra fee to ensure things get done correctly and time efficiently. Once all of the assets are either moved into the trust or named as a beneficiary of asset, then going forward, it becomes very easy to administer and manage these trusts because any new account that is opened or property purchased can be made directly by the trust.
1 Benefits of Revocable Living Trusts, https://estateelderplanning.com/2020/09/01/why-revocable-living-trusts-should-not-be-getting-such-a-bad-rap-in-new-jersey/ and Revocable Living Trusts Misunderstood, located at https://estateelderplanning.com/2018/02/26/legal-tip-of-the-week-22518/
2 Our focus in this article is mainly on addressing funding challenges with Revocable Living Trusts and only briefly discussed Irrevocable Living Trusts in passing.