More and more people are becoming ever more concerned with either protecting their assets, maintaining eligibility for Medicaid, or leaving as much as possible to children and future grandkids. As such, more and more people are realizing the remarkable utility of trusts within their estate planning. One’s residence often represents the most significant asset an individual or couple possesses, and for many, financial assistance is needed to purchase it, that is mortgages. A common question presented to Cleveland estate planning attorneys is, can protect my house with a trust if it has a mortgage? As with any legal question, the answer is not black and white.
- What is trust?
To understand how the what, when, and how of funding your trust with a mortgaged house, 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, and if the trust is drafted properly, are further ignored for the purposes of Medicaid eligibility. Further, trust assets pass via the beneficiary designations set down when the trust was created. These conveyances via beneficiary designation are much simpler, quicker, and cost-effective then going through probate and can be halted or expedited when circumstantially advantageous depending on the terms of the trust.
- When can a mortgage be called?
The next basic to understand is when can your bank come after your house, i.e. a bank calling on a mortgage. A mortgage being called is when a financial institution/holder of the mortgage demands that the full amount of a mortgage be paid. When this can occur is conditional and which events will trigger are often denoted within the mountain of legal documents that physically make up your mortgage. In the context of funding a trust with a mortgaged house, your “due-on-sale clause” is what your estate planning attorney will be concerned about.
A “due-on-sale clause” is a contract provision which authorizes a lender (your bank), at its discretion, to collect on the loan, i.e. declare it immediately due and payable if all or any part of the property, or an interest therein, securing the real property loan is sold or transferred without the lender’s prior written consent. This is fair because banks depend on mortgages getting paid off, or at least foreclosed, and the mortgage contract is between you and the bank, not the potential buyers and the bank.
- How can a mortgaged house in placed in trust without having the mortgage called?
Any “due-on-sale clause” facially seems to be a death nail to any thought of funding trust with a mortgaged house, I mean, not many people have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in liquid assets to immediately pay off a house. This is where the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 comes into play and your estate planning attorney earns his money. The relevant part of the Garn-St. Germain Act in the context is 12 U.S. Code § 1701j–3, subsection d, as follows:
(d) Exemption of specified transfers or dispositions. With respect to a real property loan secured by a lien on residential real property containing less than five dwelling units, including a lien on the stock allocated to a dwelling unit in a cooperative housing corporation, or on a residential manufactured home, a lender may not exercise its option pursuant to a due-on-sale clause upon— […]
So, to bring everything back down to Earth, this subsection possesses the two “prongs” of the Garn-St. Germain test, occupancy and beneficiary status for the trust makers for the mortgaged house. When there is a mortgage, a trust must be properly drafted to include specified reserved occupancy language in the trust to satisfy the occupancy prong of Garn-St. Germain. Simply, the trust makers, you, must specifically reserve the right to live in the house. Further, in some way, the trust makers, must be a trust beneficiary. The beneficiary status prong usually isn’t an issue with self-settled trusts given their nature, i.e. trusts made with the intent to provide some tangible benefit to the trust makers. An argument can be made that the reservation of occupancy rights inherently makes the settlors beneficiaries, however, more cautious estate planning attorneys further make trust makers income beneficiaries as well.
Facially, drafting a trust to satisfy the prongs of the Garn-St. Germain test appears straight-forward, however, care must be taken when making your trust. The interplay between the actual language of a trust can have profound effects on taxation, ownership, inheritance, and eligibility for state and federal assistance programs whose admittance guidelines are based on income and asset thresholds.
Now it is important to note that the issue of a mortgage is an issue apart from Medicaid eligibility, though often the two are interrelated. Addressing both concerns requires the same solution, precise drafting of trust language that is statutorily compliant. Under the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982, placing the home in the MAPT does not trigger the “due on sale clause” contained in most mortgages provided certain steps are taken and legal standards are satisfied. Thus, with a knowledgeable estate planning attorney, you can remain Medicaid eligible and avoid Medicaid Estate Recovery, while still living in your home and paying the mortgage as you always have.