Living trusts are one of most commonly used estate planning tools today with good reason. A living trust can be a great way for you to make sure your wishes are followed after your death, provide for fast distribution of your assets, avoid unnecessary taxes, and keep your financial affairs private.
How living trusts work
Through a living trust, the person writing the trust (grantor) retains control over the trust’s property until her death. At that point, the trust is turned over to the grantor's choices of successor trustee, who will distribute trust property according to the grantor’s wishes. One of the main advantages of a living trust is that, if properly funded, it isn’t subject to probate, which can possibly result in a faster transfer of assets without additional costs.
Are you ready to create a living trust? Whether you decide on a revocable living trust, whose terms can be changed at any time, or an irrevocable trust, you should know that writing one doesn’t have to be complicated. You can even find living trust forms online to guide you through the process of how to write a living trust.
The first half of the living trust checklist below will help you make sure you have what you need before you begin the paperwork.
1. List your assets and decide which you’ll include in the trust
To be sure you have a complete picture of your estate, you should make a list of all of your assets including your house, car, jewelry, stocks, bonds, life insurance policies, etc.
Once you have a list of all your assets laid out before you, you can list which you will put into your trust. Generally, you want to include any assets that would normally pass through probate in order to take full advantage of the benefits of having a living trust.
2. Gather the paperwork
You will need all of the titles and deeds of property, stock certificates, and bank account statements in order to “fund the trust,” that is, to transfer the property into the trust, discussed more fully below. Gather them now and have them ready so the process can go more smoothly and quickly.
3. Decide whether you will be the sole grantor
You can only put property you own into the trust, so if you are married or in a domestic partnership and much of your property is owned jointly, you will likely want to draw up a shared trust. Two individual trusts would be the alternative.
4. Choose beneficiaries
Those who will receive the trust property after your death are called the beneficiaries and can include family members, friends, or even charities and other organizations.
Note that naming beneficiaries for your living trust is an entirely separate process from naming them on your insurance policies or retirement accounts.
5. Choose a successor trustee
The successor trustee is the person who will be in charge of paying debts and distributing your assets according to your wishes upon your death. Moreover, if you become incapacitated, your successor trustee would handle your affairs for anything owned by the trust.
Accordingly, this should be someone you trust implicitly and can also be a named beneficiary in the trust. Be sure to discuss your living trust plans with your chosen successor trustee to be sure he or she is willing and able to accept the responsibility.
6. Choose someone to manage property for minor children
If a minor child will inherit through your living trust, you can name someone to manage that property for them until they reach the age of majority or whatever age you choose.
7. Prepare the trust document
Now that you’ve prepared all of the above, you’re ready to move onto creating the living trust itself. Each state has legal statutes that guide how the trust document should be written. An estate planning attorney or an online legal service can help with this process.
In addition to the trust document itself, you may want a pour-over will, which would “catch” any assets that have not made it into the trust, whether intentionally or inadvertently, as well as name a guardian for your minor children.
8. Sign and Notarize
Once your document is prepared, it must be executed according to state law. Most states require notarization of the document although sometimes only witnesses are required.
9. Transfer property to yourself as trustee
A living trust becomes valid only after the grantor “funds” the trust by transferring assets into it. The specific process for moving assets into the trust depends on the type of property involved—changing title for real estate or assigning ownership rights of intellectual property, for instance.
10. Store the document in a safe place
As with any important legal document, you should make sure that you have it stored in a safe place and that someone you trust, the successor trustee for example, has access to it.
11. Keep your living trust up to date
Births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, as well as property acquisitions and sales, all mean you should revisit the terms of your living trust to make sure they’re up to date with your wishes. Regardless, it’s a good idea to review the document at least every few years.
Living trusts can seem complicated, but as you can see, they just require a bit of preparation for the many advantages they offer.
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