Your estate plan consists of many documents and covers a lot of bases. From protecting assets from creditors and litigants to avoiding probate, a comprehensive estate plan protects you while you’re living and provides for loved ones after death. Because estate plans are, by design, comprehensive, a lot of legal jargon is thrown around and often it’s difficult to keep track of all the nuance and detail. Durable powers of attorney, QTIP elections, unlimited martial deduction, and all the many names of the many different types of trusts, to name a few.
That said, one of the most common questions posed during an initial estate planning consultation is, what is the difference between a living and a testamentary trust? Years ago testamentary trusts were all the rage, a lot of people have them but don’t know how they work or if they are even providing any benefits to the ultimate goals of estate planning. Since trusts represent one of the most utilitarian estate planning tools, in that they have the ability to do many useful and advantageous things in regards to estate planning, understanding the difference between living and testamentary trusts is critical to providing context to any advice given by Ohio estate planning attorneys.
- What is trust?
As always, we must start with the basics, what is a trust? A trust, to put it simply, is a private agreement that allows a third party, a trustee, to manage the assets that are placed inside the trust for the benefit of trust beneficiaries. There are innumerable types of trusts, each with own its respective legal conventions and purposes. A critical aspect of trusts is that the assets housed within them usually aren’t counted as a part of the trust creator’s taxable estate. Thus, when the owner of the trust creates the trust and properly funds it, the assets go from the owner’s taxable estate to the trust. Afterwards, when the owner dies, the assets are not in the owner’s estate and subject to probate.
- What is a living trust?
A living trust, also called an inter-vivos trust, is simply a trust created when you are alive. They can be either revocable and irrevocable and when someone is talking about a trust, usually it’s a living trust. Living is the umbrella term for a trust and is usually paired with other descriptive terms such as family, asset protection, or revocable or irrevocable to describe the primary purpose of the trust and what it is designed to do. Living trusts must have the same basic composition as other normal trusts, a grantor, trustee, and beneficiary.
- What is a testamentary trust?
A testamentary trust is created in your last will and testament, specifically, it directs your executor of the estate to create it. Thus, unlike a living trust, a testamentary trust will not take effect until you die. The terms of the trust are amendable and revocable, in that they can be changed at any time, which makes sense because it doesn’t come into being until after death.
One of the major distinguishing features of a testamentary trust is the involvement of the local probate court. From the time of the settlor’s death until the expiration of the testamentary trust, the probate court checks up on the trust to make sure it is being managed properly. Court involvement is usually sought in the context of testamentary trusts because these trusts are usually created for beneficiaries who, for some reason, are unable to received and manage trust funds appropriately.
- When would you use one over the other?
At the end of the day, just like every other estate planning decision, it is all circumstantial and highly depend on personal situation and estate planning goals. (Which is why estate planning attorneys ask so many questions when you first meet them.) For the sake of some definitive answer, however, there are some tried and true situations when one is preferable over the other.
If you are interested in avoiding probate, avoiding excessive court oversight, keeping your estate private, and saving your estate money by simplifying property conveyances and avoiding potential will contests, then a living will is likely a good choice. As mentioned before, since living trusts can be created to meet almost any goal or concern of estate planning, the major deciding factors of use is initial cost and ultimate utility of a trust, i.e. there is no point buying a trust if you have nothing to fund it with.
Testamentary trusts, on the other hand, are created for young children who may be at risk of receiving improper inheritances or trust distributions, family members with disabilities, or other who may get large amounts of money or assets that enter into the estate upon a testator’s death. Further, these trusts are often highly recommended for parents who are at risk of dying at the same time.
A testamentary trust can set parameters on your estate and how it will be distributed and/or managed after you pass on. For example, you might include terms that allow for discretionary distributions of $1,000 a month to be given to your children until the age of 21 in the event both parents pass. This ensure that, even if tragedy strikes, the kids will, at least in some way, be supported by their parents, whether they’re gone or not. At the end of the day, testamentary trusts, like all trusts, allows estate control even after death. Testamentary trusts are unique, however, in that the allow for greater oversight, via the courts, in what’s going on inside the trust. This can be a double-edged sword, however, in that, depending on how long the court needs to be involved, legal fees and administrative costs could add up making this trust structure unattractive if the trust is designed to last a long time.
Again, dependent on the circumstances, such as estate planning goals, family structure, available estate assets, either or both types of trusts may be advantageous to use. A Cleveland estate planning attorney is in the best position to judge what is most appropriate for a given situation.