How To “Fund” Your Revocable Living Trust

APRIL 15, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 15
We keep bumping into versions of the same story:

“Mom and dad created a revocable living trust. They wanted to avoid probate, and my sister lives in a group home because she is developmentally disabled. The trust named me as trustee, and my sister’s share goes into a special needs trust. Problem is, they named the kids as beneficiaries on their IRAs, and the house wasn’t transferred into the trust. Is that going to cause any difficulties?”

In a word: yes. Two kinds of difficulties, in fact:

  1. Not transferring assets to the trust (like the house) means that the probate avoidance value of the trust is lost altogether. Probably we will have to file a probate proceeding to transfer the house to the trust — and then it can be distributed properly. The good news is that those assets they DID transfer into the trust won’t be subject to the probate proceeding. The bad news: there will still have to be a probate proceeding. Your parents failed in their goal to avoid probate.
  2. The IRA beneficiary designations create a different difficulty. The other kids will get their shares of the IRA just fine, even though your parents didn’t use the trust. But your sister’s share will go outright to her, and will cause her to lose her eligibility for at least some public benefits — and we will probably have to have a court proceeding (in Arizona, a conservatorship) to get you or someone else authority to handle her inherited IRA. Plus we may have to have a related court proceeding to set up a special needs trust (we can’t use the one that your parents created) to receive those funds — and if we do, that trust will get paid back to the state when your sister dies. In other words, your parents also failed in their goal to provide protection for your sister’s inheritance.

How did this happen? Didn’t the creation of the trust address both kinds of problems?

No. Creation of the trust was one thing. Funding of the trust is another.

“Funding” is the term lawyers usually use to describe all the different kinds of things that have to be done to get assets titled in the name of a revocable living trust. It is an essential part of the process, and usually is part of the job taken on by the lawyer who drafted the trust. Not every lawyer agrees, but we at Fleming & Curti, PLC, feel that we have not completed our job unless we have at least initiated the process of getting assets transferred to the trust. The practical effect: even after you sign your estate planning documents, you may still be working with our office for weeks or months to get the “funding” done.

Some assets are fairly easy. The house title (at least for Arizona properties) is easy for us to prepare. If there is out-of-state real property, we may need to involve a lawyer from the state where the property is — but even that is usually a fairly modest cost.A lawyer in, say, Indiana might transfer Indiana property to the Arizona trust at a low cost, hoping that we will return the favor the next time she has an Arizona property to transfer into an Indiana trust (we probably will).

Other assets can be more complicated. Your bank, credit union or brokerage house may resist changing accounts into the trust’s name. Some may flat out refuse. Some will appear to have done it right, but then later decide that the title hasn’t actually been changed at all (and they may not tell us).

Then there are the assets that get changed after the trust is signed. If you have refinanced your home mortgage, or purchased a certificate of deposit from a new financial institution, or talked to your “personal banker” about accounts, you might well have signed new title documents. You often will not even realize that that is what you were doing — no one ever says: “you know, if you sign this document it might just mess up your trust funding — you should talk with your estate planning attorney first.” We wish they would say just that.

Some assets get overlooked. Did you remember that you inherited a 5/24 interest in some oil and gas rights in Texas? Did you tell us about the small bank account you kept in your hometown bank when you moved to Arizona 23 years ago? Did you even remember that you had a life insurance policy from your time in the military at the end of World War II?

Then there are the beneficiary designations. Life insurance, IRAs and other retirement accounts and annuities almost always have them. Bank and brokerage accounts and, in Arizona and a handful of other states, even real estate can have them. Our clients are forever tinkering with them — you go to a seminar, or listen to the bank manager explain the value of annuities, or talk to a tax preparer who assures you that lawyers are overpriced, and then the beneficiary designation gets disconnected from the rest of your estate plan.

Don’t panic. (“Towel Day,” incidentally, is May 25 — go ahead and look it up. We’ll wait.) The problem might not be insoluble.

It would be best, of course, if we could get things right while you’re still alive. Haven’t met with your lawyer in five years? Make an appointment, gather up all the statements, titles and beneficiary designations you can, and sit down to review the funding of your trust. Not every beneficiary designation should name the trust in every situation. Not every account will actually be held the way you believe it is, or the way your lawyer believes it should be.

Even if you don’t get it straightened out while you’re still alive, there may be things your heirs can do. In Arizona, up to a total of $50,000 (that may be changing to $75,000 in a few months, incidentally) can be collected into your trust without having to do a full-blown probate. Up to $75,000 of real property (soon to be $100,000) can be collected in a simplified probate proceeding, too. There are rules and limitations, but many problems of failure to fund trusts can be taken care of through those provisions of law. Not in Arizona? We don’t know for sure (we don’t practice in your state), but there are similar rules in most, perhaps all, states.

Thank goodness your lawyer is such a nice person, and the staff is so pleasant. That makes it easier to follow up, even after you’ve already signed your revocable living trust.

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2 Responses

  1. After making sure the house is transferred into the trust by having the office take responsibilty for the recording of the trust transfer deed and all necessary papers that must be recorded with it….and drafting letters to banks re accounts to be transferred…..following up with letters reminding clients to follow through on any beneficiary changes to IRAs and other insurance policies….bank accounts….we reviewed….what else can we do to make sure the trust is fully funded. An annual reminder letter? Other ideas??

  2. Helene:

    I like the annual reminder letter idea, but there is a question about how much it might cost to do that, and whether clients will get you up-to-date information or fully understand your reminder. Newsletters could help. Periodic office visits are probably called for — though annual might be more frequent than necessary.

    You raise good questions about how much of the responsibility still belongs to the client, and how much the lawyer can actually assume. On balance, I think that helping the client get through the initial funding, and making it easy to follow up, will improve the frequency of proper funding. But there will still be glitches, of course.

    Thanks for raising the questions.

    Robert Fleming
    Fleming & Curti, PLC
    Tucson, Arizona

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