Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trust – What’s the Difference?

Sometimes you need to look past the trust's name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.
Sometimes you need to look past a trust’s name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

At first, the difference between a revocable trust and an irrevocable trust may appear very simple. One would think that, as the names imply, a revocable trust is one that can be terminated or amended, while an irrevocable trust is one that cannot be changed.  However, as often happens with the law, things aren’t always what they seem as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch. 

Sometimes you have to look beyond the name of the trust to determine if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

A revocable trust, often referred to as a revocable living trust, is one that can be changed or terminated by the person who created the trust, whom we shall refer to as a trust maker. A revocable living trust is often used as a substitute for a Will because, like a Will, it can be amended by the trust maker depending on the circumstances, and it can help avoid probate if the trust maker’s property is titled in the name of the trust (or the trust is named as a beneficiary on the trust maker’s accounts and other assets).

But, a revocable trust becomes an irrevocable trust on the trust maker’s death. Also, the trust maker’s incapacity during life may result in a revocable trust becoming irrevocable. This can be confusing because the trust may keep the same name (for example, the John Doe Revocable Living Trust), but, if John Doe is deceased, the revocable living trust is really an irrevocable trust.

A revocable trust is considered almost an alter ego of the trust maker. As a result, a revocable trust does not provide creditor protection. From a tax standpoint, a revocable trust belongs to the trust maker and is included in the trust maker’s estate when calculating the estate tax.

As for an irrevocable trust, one would generally think that it is a trust that cannot be changed. But this impression, too, may be deceptive. A trust maker, beneficiary, or an independent person may be given powers to make certain changes to an irrevocable trust. Those changes may include the removal and replacement of a trustee and the ability to change or add beneficiaries.

An irrevocable trust is considered to be totally separate from the trust maker. It is usually constructed to avoid having the assets of the trust included the trust maker’s estate for estate tax purposes. An irrevocable trust can offer the beneficiary creditor and divorce protection, as well as prudent management of trust assets if the beneficiary is not good with financial matters. That’s why many parents create irrevocable trusts for their children when making gifts instead of making gifts to their children directly.

In addition to the trust maker giving the power in limited circumstances to change certain provisions of an irrevocable trust, an irrevocable trust may be “reformed” by a court, if it can be shown that the trust’s purposes can no longer be carried out.

And many states have passed laws allowing an irrevocable trust to be “decanted” – meaning that the assets of the original trust may be poured like wine into a new trust that includes provisions that are better suited to the current situation. These laws for the most part include safeguards to make sure that this is not a unilateral decision on the part of the trustee or the trust maker and the decanting is permitted only if it is in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

Of course, a trust maker may always prohibit reformation or decanting when creating an irrevocable trust, but, if the trust is to last for generations, it may make sense to allow limited ways for the irrevocable trust to adapt to changing circumstances.

So the next time you come across a reference to a revocable or irrevocable trust, look beyond the name to determine whether the trust is really revocable or irrevocable.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

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Trusts Aren’t Just for Billionaires: Reasons for a Trust

Occasionally clients are hesitant to utilize trusts in their estate plan because they “just have a simple estate” or believe they need substantial assets to warrant a trust.   In fact, trusts are for everyone and solve a variety of purposes in estate planning.  According to an article entitled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch, trusts give great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate. Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust.  This person is known by many different names based upon the convention of where the trust is established, but is often known as the “grantor” or “trustor” or something similar.   These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control while you are living, especially if your goal is to avoid probate while being able to revise your plan in the future.  The idea is that if your trust is the owner of an asset or properly receives the assets at your death, there will be no need for a Will to be probated through the court system.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust or directed to it upon death, depending on the type of asset and what your goals are. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

See here for a more robust discussion of how a trust works versus a will.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/will-vs-living-trust-a-quick-and-simple-reference-guide/

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed subject to a few caveats. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.  These types of trust are becoming more and more useful as the estate tax exemption is expected to go down leaving more and more clients exposed to potential estate taxes.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s a few reasons for a trust and why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, Massachusetts exempts $1 million, Texas has none at all.  Some states are even more complicated in having inheritance tax (taxes are applied against the exact amount transferred).  Further, it is widely accepted that the federal estate tax exemption will be lowered as well.  An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.  You can also see here for a recent article I wrote on life insurance trusts as a good example of a common trust used to reduce estate tax exposure.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-irrevocable-life-insurance-trust-why-should-you-have-one/ 

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

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Estate Planning Avoids Problems With Selling the Family Home

Estate planning can help avoid problems when selling the family home.
Estate planning can help avoid problems when selling the family home.

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward with selling the family home after a parent has passed away. If the family home was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, things can get even more complicated. The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of estate planning the parent has done.

Much also depends on the family’s ability to ask for help and work with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. This is why is is important to address what happens to the family home in an estate plan.

Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will or a living trust. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will or a trust, and other estate planning documents.

After a parent passes away, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Make sure to save all receipts and estimates.

Also, the Executor or successor Trustee under the parent’s estate planning documents should secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complication.

Be realistic about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

To keep disagreements to a minimum, the Executor or successor Trustee should frequently update the heirs on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually better to sell an inherited property as quickly as possible. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased many years ago, but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Dealing with issues in advance through estate planning will help minimize conflicts after a parent passes away. Learn more avoiding estate planning mistakes.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”

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