FEBRUARY 3, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 5
Judging from the questions we field online and from clients, there is a lot of confusion about some of the basic terms commonly used in estate planning. We thought maybe we could do a service (and make our own explanations a little easier) by collecting some of the more-common ones — and defining them. Feel free to suggest additional terms or quibble with our definitions:
Will — this is the starting point for estate planning. It is the document by which you declare who will receive your property, and who will be in charge of handling your estate. Note, though, that if you have a “living trust” (see below), your will may actually be the least important document in your estate planning bundle.
Personal representative — this is the person you put in charge of probating your estate. It is an umbrella of a name, encompassing what we used to call executors, executrixes, administrators, administratrixes and other, less-common, terms. If you use one of the old-fashioned terms in your will, that probably won’t be a problem — we’ll just call them your “personal representative” when the time comes. Note that your personal representative has absolutely no authority until you have died and your will has been admitted to probate.
Devisee — that’s what we call each of the people (or organizations) your will names as receiving something.
Heir — if you didn’t have a will, your relatives would take your property in a specified order (see “intestate succession” below). The people who would get something if you hadn’t signed a will are your “heirs.” Note that some people can be both heirs and devisees.
Intestate succession — every state has a rule of intestate succession, and they are mostly pretty similar. The list of relatives is your legislature’s best guess of who most people would want to leave their estates to. Think of it as a sort of a default will — in Arizona, for instance, the principles of intestate succession are set out in Arizona Revised Statutes Title 14, Chapter 2, Article 1, beginning with section 14-2101 (keep clicking on “next document” to scroll through the relevant statutes).
Escheat — that’s the term lawyers use to describe the situation where you leave no close relatives, or all the people named in your will have died before you. Escheat is very, very rare, incidentally. Note that the Arizona statute eschews “escheat” in favor of “unclaimed estate.” There is a different, but related, concept in the statutes, too: if an heir or devisee exists but can’t be found, the property they would receive can be distributed to the state to be held until someone steps forward to claim their share. That is not an unclaimed estate, but an unclaimed asset.
Pourover will — when you create a living trust (see below), you usually mean to avoid having your estate go through probate at all. If everything works just right your will won’t ever be filed, and no probate proceeding will be necessary. Just in case, though, we will probably have you sign a will that leaves everything to your trust — we hope not to use it, but if we have to then the will directs that all of your assets be poured into the trust.
Trust — a trust is a separate entity, governed by its own rules and providing (usually) for who will receive assets or income upon the happening of specified events. Think of a trust as a sort of corporation (though of course it is not, and it is not subject to all of the rules governing corporations). It owns property and has an operating agreement — the trust document itself. There are a lot of different types of trusts, and usually the names are just shorthand ways of describing some of the trust’s characteristics.
Testamentary trust — the first kind of trust, and the oldest, is a trust created in a will. Of course, a testamentary trust will not exist until your estate has been probated, so it is of no use in any attempt to avoid probate. But you can put a trust provision in your will so that any property going to particular beneficiaries will be managed according to rules you spell out. Testamentary trusts are relatively rare these days, but they still have a place in some estate plans.
Living trust — pretty much any trust that is not a testamentary trust can be called a living trust. The term really just means that the trust exists during the life of the person establishing the trust. If you sign a trust declaration or agreement, and you transfer no assets (or nominal assets) to it but provide that it will receive an insurance payout, or a share of your probate estate, it is still a living trust — it is just an unfunded living trust until assets arrive.
Trustee — this is the person who is in charge of a trust. Usually we say “trustee” for the person who is in charge now, and “successor trustee” for the person who will take over when some event (typically the death, resignation or incapacity of the current trustee) occurs. There can, of course, be co-trustees — multiple trustees with shared authority. Sometimes co-trustee are permitted to act independently, and sometimes they must all act together (or a majority of them must agree). The trust document should spell out which approach will apply, and how everyone will know that the successor trustee or trustees have taken over.
Grantor trust — this is a term mostly used in connection with the federal income tax code, but sometimes used more widely. In tax law, it means that the trust will be ignored for income tax purposes, and the grantor (or grantors) will be treated as owning the assets directly. Most living trusts funded during the life of the person signing the trust will be grantor trusts — but not all of them. Outside of tax settings the term “grantor trust” is often used more loosely, and it can sometimes mean any living trust whose grantor is still alive.
Revocable trust — means exactly what it sounds like. Someone (usually, but not always, the person who established the trust) has the power to revoke the trust. Sometimes that includes the power to designate where trust assets will go, but usually the trust just provides that upon revocation the assets go back to the person who contributed them to the trust.
Irrevocable trust — a trust that is not a revocable trust. Oddly, though, a trust can have “revocable” in its name and be irrevocable — if, for example, Dave and Sally Jones create the “Jones Family Revocable Trust,” it probably becomes irrevocable after Dave and Sally die. Its name doesn’t change, however.
Special needs trust — any trust with provisions for dealing with the actual or potential disability of a beneficiary can be said to be a special needs trust. Usually, but not always, a special needs trust is designed to provide benefits for someone who is on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability (SSD) or other government programs. Sometimes the money comes from the beneficiary, and sometimes from family members or others wanting to provide for the beneficiary.
There’s more. A lot more, actually. Has this been helpful? Let us know and we’ll add to it in coming weeks. In the meantime, a reminder: ask your estate planning lawyer for help with these concepts. Don’t be embarrassed that they seem complicated — they are complicated.