Posts Tagged ‘revocable living trust’

Failure of the Imagination in Seven-Decade-Old Trust

SEPTEMBER 6, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 33
Why involve an attorney in your estate planning? Partly because they know the rules — and not just the rules about how to prepare a valid and comprehensive document, but also the rules about taxes, trust limitations, and all of the related concerns you might not focus on without professional assistance. But lawyers are also good at imagining unlikely scenarios, and covering all the possibilities.

At least they usually are. Sometimes even lawyers suffer failures of imagination. Our training and inclination leads us to consciously consider unlikely scenarios, but sometimes even lawyers get caught up in the language or the particular desires of the client. And sometimes it takes years — or even decades — to find the flaw in the language.

Consider Darthea Harrison’s trust, signed in March of 1947 in Kansas. For context: living trusts were quite rare before the middle of the twentieth century. Most lawyers of the day might only have prepared a handful, and few state laws dealt specifically with trust interpretation. By contrast, wills were commonplace, and benefited from centuries of developed law addressing questions of interpretation. That might be why Ms. Harrison’s lawyers made the mistake they did.

The trust Ms. Harrison signed provided that she would receive all the income from trust assets for the rest of her life. After her death, her son (and only child) William would be entitled to the income for the rest of his life. After that, the trust principal was to be distributed to Ms. Harrison’s two brothers or, if they were no longer living, to their children.

That seems straightforward enough, but the failure was one of imagination. What actually happened: Ms. Harrison died in 1962 and her son William died in 2013 (without ever having had children). When William died, both of Ms. Harrison’s brothers had already died — and so had all of their children (they would have been Ms. Harrison’s nieces and nephews). But the nieces and nephews did leave a total of eight children of their own.

What should happen to the remaining trust principal? Should it be given to the grandchildren of Ms. Harrison’s two brothers? Should it go to Ms. Harrison’s estate (which was probated in 1964, and would have to be reopened to determine who would receive her “new” estate)? Should it “escheat” to the State of Kansas (where Ms. Harrison died) or to the State of Missouri (where the trust was administered)? What about the fact that Ms. Harrison’s husband — who survived her — was not the father of her son, and in fact married her after the trust was executed?

This uncertainty could easily have been resolved if, back in 1947, the attorneys drafting Ms. Harrison’s trust had simply provided that upon the death of her brothers their share of her trust would devolve not to their children, but to their descendants. Alternatively, she could have considered the possibility and decided that she would then want to benefit a charity, or more distant relatives, or someone else close to her.

If Ms. Harrison had signed a will with the same language as used in her trust, both Kansas and Missouri law would have filled in the blanks for her. Arizona law, incidentally, would have handled it the same way. In that case, five centuries of will interpretations have determined that leaving something to your relatives presumably includes their descendants if the relative dies before you — or before the future date when distribution is determined.

The Missouri probate court decided that the trust had failed, and that its remaining assets should be distributed to Ms. Harrison’s estate, which would thus need to be reopened. The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed, and reversed the probate court holding. Instead, according to the appellate court, the interests of Ms. Harrison’s brother’s children had “vested” before they died — and the probate court should have determined where each of those beneficiaries’ shares should go now.

In some cases, that should mean that the nieces’ and nephews’ children should receive their shares. In others, it might mean that a will, or a surviving spouse, might change the outcome. In any case, the Missouri probate judge will need to conduct hearings to determine the final recipients of Ms. Harrison’s trust. Alexander v. UMB Bank, August 23, 2016.

Today, more careful drafting is commonplace. When your lawyer insists that you consider the possibility that your beneficiaries die in unlikely sequences, or that unanticipated children come into a family (by birth or adoption), or that odd combinations of simultaneous deaths occur, she is thinking about Ms. Harrison — even if she has never heard the story.

You Have a Trust — Now You Need a Beneficiary Designation

MARCH 21, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 11

You have decided to create a revocable living trust, naming your oldest daughter as successor trustee. Your trust directs that, upon your death, $10,000 is to go to each of your grandchildren, $50,000 to the Good Intentions charity, and everything else will be divided equally among your three children. So what should you put on your IRA beneficiary designation?

You might already have recognized that we just served up a trick question. There is, sadly, not an easy and obvious answer — at least not on the basis of the information spelled out so far.

It is going to be hard to tell you the correct (or even the best) answer here, but let’s look at some of the options. As you consider them, you might want to have your IRA custodian’s actual beneficiary designation form at hand. Don’t have one with you? Not a problem: you can probably download the form. Most major financial institutions offer their forms online — here are forms for Vanguard, Fidelity, TIAA-CREF. Look for your IRA custodian before we move on. We’ll wait.

Here’s something we notice about your IRA custodian’s form: it isn’t terribly flexible. Want to designate two charities? You might need to attach a separate sheet. Want to try to leave dollar amounts (“up to the first $100,000”)? You might not be able to do it at all. But let’s still look at some of the options. For the moment, we’re going to assume that you do not have a living spouse — but we’ll come back to that later.

You could just leave the IRA to the trust. This has several advantages. It’s straightforward. It lets you make any other changes you want in the trust document, and you’ll never have to fill out the beneficiary designation form again. It automatically takes care of a batch of follow-up questions unaddressed on the beneficiary designation form (like “what happens if a beneficiary is under age 18?” or “what happens if one of my beneficiaries dies before me?”).

It should be said that there are some problems with naming a trust as beneficiary. For one, the named beneficiaries might have to take all their inherited IRA money out slightly faster than if they had been named individually. For another, you might be assured — again and again — that you “can’t” name the trust as beneficiary, or that you incur extra tax liability if you do (this is incorrect, but common, advice). You’ll need to arm yourself with enough understanding that you don’t succumb and make more changes later.

So how do you actually name the trust? The online forms we looked at tell you to put down the name of the trust (“The Jones Family Trust”) and its date. Check the appropriate box (is this a current trust, or one created under your will?). Leave blank the space for a tax identification number if your trust uses your Social Security number.

You could just leave the IRA to your children. Let your trust fund the $10,000 for each grandchild, and the $50,000 to charity. The IRA could just pass to your children. The good news: it’s pretty straightforward to fill out the form (just list the three children, put 33.33% as to each and, probably, check the “per stirpes” box to make sure that any deceased child’s share goes to his or her children). The bad news: any share of the IRA designated to your child with a disability, or a spending problem, or a greedy spouse — will go outright to that child. It might cause other financial problems, but that might not be an important consideration.

You could leave the IRA to Good Intentions. It turns out that IRAs are particularly good resources for any charitable inclinations you might have. Why? Because the charity doesn’t have to pay any income tax on the IRA proceeds. But you are leaving a flat dollar amount to the charity, rather than a percentage — and most of the beneficiary designation forms assume percentages. So you have to either create a personalized beneficiary designation (and hope your custodian will accept it), or adjust the amount you leave to the charity outside the IRA, or modify your estate plan every year or two as your IRA grows and shrinks.Still, this approach might make sense. How to carry it out? Just put the charity in as beneficiary. Ask them for their tax ID number (they’ll give it to you). And watch the IRA balance every year to make sure you’re leaving the right amount (not too little, not too much) to Good Intentions.

You could leave the IRA to your grandchildren. You’re planning on leaving a small amount to each grandchild anyway, and leaving it in an IRA for most of their lives would allow it to grow, tax free, for years. But they will have to withdraw small sums every year after your death, so it can actually complicate things (especially if they are under age, or not yet ready to manage their own funds).Want to use this approach? Just list each grandchild, with date of birth. Pay attention to new additions (by birth or adoption). Make a decision about step-grandchildren, and monitor familial relationships accordingly. Review your beneficiary designation every year or two.

But what about your spouse? We promised we’d come back to this. For most people, in most circumstances, it makes sense to name your spouse as the primary beneficiary. Most of the specific items we’ve listed here will fit under the “Secondary Beneficiaries” or “Contingent Beneficiaries” section of the form.Why is this important? You probably want the account to benefit your spouse first. You might need your spouse’s approval to make any other arrangement. There are significant income tax advantages a spouse has over other beneficiaries (well, most other beneficiaries). But everyone’s situation is different, so make sure you explore this with your estate planning attorney before changing the beneficiary designation.

This looks pretty easy, right? What could go wrong? Well, how about this, or this. Be careful out there. Are you our client? Let us help you with the beneficiary designation form. Not our client? Talk to your estate planning lawyer.

Your Trust and Ownership of Real Property

MARCH 7, 2016 VOLUME 23 NUMBER 9

We occasionally get questions from our clients involving ownership of real estate — usually around the creation, funding or administration of a living trust. These questions are particularly common, and since we got them (from different clients) in the last two weeks, it seemed like a good time to review them.

I can’t find my original house deed. What do I need to do?

Nothing. At least in Arizona, there is no need to keep your original deed, once it has been filed with the appropriate County Recorder’s office.

Arizona real estate transactions (like most, but not all, states) rely heavily on title insurers issuing policies covering title to the property. That means that a non-governmental entity — the title insurance company — reviews the records regarding your property and decides whether they will issue an insurance policy. If they will, then that means they have determined that your ownership is clear enough for them to go forward. They will not need to see the original deed (or your mortgage, or anything else) so long as it has been recorded.

Is it OK to simply throw your original deed away? Probably — but of course lawyers hate to encourage people to destroy paper (and especially original documents). We recommend that you keep the original document — the deed from when you bought the property, the refinancing documents when you negotiated that lower loan rate, and the deed we prepared transferring the property to your trust — in the binder with your trust documents. But if you misplace the title documents, don’t worry one bit.

You can always get a new, certified copy of the deed(s) from the Recorder’s office — but we don’t even recommend that you take that step. It’s not that it hurts anything, but the certified copies are expensive and unnecessary.

Having a hard time remembering whether you ever signed a deed transferring the property to your trust? If we prepared your trust, we almost certainly got you to sign a deed at the same time. But it’s pretty easy to check — just look at your annual tax statement (ours arrived this week, so this might be a good time for you to look). Does your property get listed as belonging to you as trustee? If so, that’s a pretty good indication that it was transferred to the trust.

What if your property is not in Arizona? We aren’t sure, as there is some state-to-state variation.

But while it isn’t important to have the original deed in your possession, it is important to make sure that the property is titled properly. If you have created a living trust, you probably want title to the real estate transferred into the trust’s name.

Do I really have to transfer all my property to the living trust?

Yes. For most people, the primary purpose of creating a trust is to avoid the cost and administrative burden of going through a probate proceeding. That only works if property belongs not to you as an individual but to the trust.

It is possible, by the way, to have many kinds of property held in your individual name but with a “pay on death” or beneficiary designation causing it to be retitled to the trust upon your death. Talk with your lawyer about this concept if you are unsure or unclear.

If I transfer my property to my trust, will it affect the mortgage?

The short answer: no. But of course the answer can be much more complicated.

There are at least two things real property owners might worry about when transferring property to a trust: (1) will the mortgage need to be repaid immediately? and (2) if the bank ultimately forecloses on the property, is it easier for the bank to pursue any losses after establishment of a trust?

If you have a mortgage on your home, and you sell it (or even give it away), the bank will probably have the power to insist that its mortgage be paid off immediately. That is sometimes called a “due on sale” provision, and most (but not all) real estate loans include such a clause. But federal law (the Garn-St. Germain Depositary Institutions Act, if you’re looking for the actual law) says a due on sale provision can not be enforced when you transfer your property to a revocable living trust.

The bank’s ability to pursue a judgment for the uncollected value of their loan after sale of your house is a more complicated problem to analyze — and it varies more by state. If, say, you have a mortgage of $200,000 on your home but it is only worth $150,000, you can see that if the bank does foreclose they will not recover the full amount due.

If the bank does sue you for the balance due, they are said to be pursuing a “deficiency judgment.” Can they do that?

Of course, it depends. But in Arizona, at least, they usually can not — provided that the property is a single-family residence or duplex, and the loan was used to purchase the home in the first place. But here’s the most important piece: that answer does not change at all just because the property was transferred into your living trust.

Like any good lawyers, we can make these answers much more complicated. We could point out that in Arizona there are few “mortgages” — real estate secures notes with a “deed of trust” approach rather than a mortgage. We could wax eloquent about “purchase money mortgages”, and the difference between judicial foreclosure, non-judicial foreclosure, short sales and deeds in lieu of foreclosure. But the important message is this: creating a trust, and transferring your property into the trust’s name, will not usually have any effect on your mortgage and will not expose you to a higher likelihood of suffering a deficiency judgment.

As always, we hope this helps you to understand your legal status.

Creating Your Trust: Dealing With Specific Assets

DECEMBER 28, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 48

When our clients establish revocable living trusts, we help them transfer assets to the trust’s name. That’s not unique — most law firms help clients through the process. This is often referred to as “funding” the trust, and it can be more complicated than it seems like it might be.

Some asset transfers are relatively straightforward. A deed can transfer your home and any other Arizona real estate into the trust. A trip to the bank and another to your stockbroker can complete those transfers (we can’t make those changes directly from our office, but can give you help and directions). There are a number of assets, though, that will often require some special considerations. Depending on your circumstances, those might include:

IRAs and other retirement accounts. These are often the most challenging. Depending on your family situation and the terms of your trust, it might be important to name the trust as a beneficiary (or maybe an alternate beneficiary) on your retirement accounts. For the next person in similar circumstances, it might be a mistake to name the trust as beneficiary. There are specific rules that have to be addressed, and this one requires some individualized attention.

Out of state real estate. This is often the most important item to transfer into the trust’s name and, unfortunately, we usually can’t help you with that transfer. We aren’t familiar with deed practices in other states, and aren’t qualified to practice law in those states, either. Unfortunately, your (or we) will need to make arrangements with a law firm in the other state to complete the transfer. We’ll take care of the details, but it will add another cost to the establishment of the trust.

Your home. Normally we want your home transferred into the trust’s name, but not in every circumstance. For people with special property tax breaks, for instance, it might be important to keep the home in the owner’s individual name. We might be talking about creating a “beneficiary deed,” an option Arizona permits for transfer of real estate to another person — or to a trust — automatically on your death.

Life insurance. Often we counsel that you should name the trust as beneficiary on your life insurance policies, but not in every instance. One difference: if the life insurance goes straight to beneficiaries, it clearly is not liable to claims made against your estate or trust. If you name your trust, or your estate, as beneficiary, you could be subjecting the life insurance to those claims. This is normally not a big issue, but we do need to think about it for a few moments before naming beneficiaries.

Vehicles. We usually do not push clients to transfer their cars into the trust, partly because the difficulty and cost are greater for this transfer than for many others. Besides, under Arizona law we can collect up to $75,000 of your assets even if they are outside the trust at your death, and few clients have vehicles worth that much. We do suggest that you think about the trust next time you buy a car, and ask about titling it to the trust. Make sure your insurance agent knows about the title to the car, and that your insurance is not affected (it shouldn’t be, but double check). Arizona permits a “transfer on death” designation for car titles, and sometimes we like to employ that approach to ensuring that the vehicle transfer is not a problem when you die.

Some vehicles are more valuable, or more problematic for other reasons. We have transferred airplanes, recreational vehicles and commercial trucks to trusts; the importance of accomplishing the transfer is clearer when the value of the vehicle is larger.

Let us also mention another problem that comes up frequently with vehicles. Suppose you intend to leave your house and all its contents to one beneficiary. Is the car parked in the garage included? You get to decide, but simply saying “house and its contents” might leave a significant asset unresolved.

Annuities. The choice of owner and beneficiary for annuities will vary depending on income tax issues, purpose of the annuity and its change in value over time. As with retirement accounts, it can be hard to generalize about annuities. We’ll need to discuss this asset class.

Operating bank account. What about the bank account you use for direct deposit of your Social Security and retirement payments? Should it be titled to the trust, or kept in your individual name? We generally prefer that you transfer even that account to the trust’s name, but that will usually mean a new account, new checks (they can still carry your individual name) and new debit cards. Another option: keep one small operating account outside the trust, but name the trust as “payable on death” beneficiary.

Clients frequently establish a living trust, transfer all of their assets to the trust, then worry about making sure there’s money available for emergencies “in case something happens” (by that they usually mean “when I die,” but that’s hard to say). There’s no need for an emergency account — the trust authority automatically transfers to your successor trustee on death, and the delay in getting access to the accounts will normally be very short.

Are you worried about having money immediately available? You might think about naming the daughter who will be your successor trustee as co-trustee instead. Give her immediate authority to manage trust assets, and she won’t have to prove your death in order to take over responsibility that she already has. Besides, creating even a small account with her as a joint owner invites family disputes about whether that account was supposed to be inside the trust or separate.

Our takeaway: “funding” your trust is more complicated than it looks like it might be. Talk to us about the best way to handle your various asset types. We can help figure this out.

Court Rejects Challenge to Living Trust After Settlor’s Death

FEBRUARY 16, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 7

Jessica Waltham (not her real name) died tragically in 2012, when her home south of Tucson burned down. She left a small estate, three sons and a bubbling dispute over the validity of her living trust.

Jessica had first signed a living trust in 2000. She titled her home, and her bank and investment accounts to the trust. She also signed a “pour-over” will (leaving the rest of her estate to her trust), and powers of attorney.

In that initial round of planning, Jessica’s trust and related documents left everything equally to her three sons. She named one son, Edward, as her successor trustee and agent on her powers of attorney.

Beginning in 2009, though, Jessica began to revise her estate plan. Over the next three years she made several changes; the last change, early in 2012, named Edward’s two sons as the primary beneficiaries of her trust, and largely disinherited all three of her sons. It still named Edward as successor trustee.

After Jessica’s tragic death, her other two sons challenged Edward’s administration of the trust. They demanded an accounting, insisted on seeing the history of documents signed by their mother, and even started a probate proceeding (though all of Jessica’s assets were titled to her trust, and her will left directed that any other assets be distributed to the trust anyway). As the proceedings continued, the two dissident brothers filed a lis pendens claim against Jessica’s house, seeking to prevent any disposition of the property while they argued about the effect of her trust and its amendments.

Edward, acting as successor trustee, moved to dismiss his brother’s court demands, and to administer the trust (with its last amendments) according to the document itself. Ultimately the probate court agreed, and ruled that Jessica’s other sons had not standing to demand an accounting (since they were not trust beneficiaries) and had not raised sufficient evidence of any wrongdoing to require Edward to respond.

The probate judge took one step further, ruling that the filing of a lis pendens was improper. The judge imposed sanctions against the brothers, finding that they had no legitimate reason to claim any interest in the trust’s property — even if they were to be successful in the trust interpretation action, the property unquestionably belonged to the trust. The probate judge may have been moved by other actions taken by the brothers, including filing a change of address form with the Post Office to have their mother’s mail redirected to them, despite the fact that Edward was in charge of managing the trust’s (and their mother’s) property.

The Arizona Court of Appeals, ruling last week in a memorandum opinion, agreed with the probate judge. According to the appellate judges, Jessica’s two sons had no standing to demand an accounting or explanation from Edward as trustee. They had no basis for filing the lis pendens, and were properly sanctioned for doing so (and for refusing to release it when challenged). The judgment against them was upheld, and the Court of Appeals added an additional sanction of attorneys fees and costs against them for the appeal, as well. In Re the Wootan Revocable Living Trust, February 13, 2015.

The family dispute arising out of Jessica’s trust is part of a growing trend in the estate planning arena. As revocable living trusts have become more common and popular, the pace of trust challenges has picked up, as well.

One of the hallmarks of trust administration is that it usually is not supervised or monitored by the courts. Of course disgruntled heirs have the ability to seek court intervention — but the probate courts generally are slow to intervene unless there is a serious challenge by someone who clearly has a right to raise that challenge. Mere belief that something must be wrong is not enough; a challenger must have standing and an articulated reason for seeking court monitoring.

Turn the question around, though. If you were Jessica, and had decided to disinherit your children in favor of some of your grandchildren, what might you have done to reduce the likelihood of a challenge? Would it help to share your plan with the affected children? To explain your intentions in writing, or by a recorded message?

The two primary challenges Jessica’s sons raised were typical: they claimed that she must not have understood what she was doing, and that she must have been persuaded by Edward to make the changes at his request. Both are difficult to prove, and suspicion — even strong suspicion — is not enough. But would Jessica’s lawyer’s notes help show that she perfectly understood what she was doing, and that it was her own wish to make the change?

Top Ten Reasons to Skip the Living Trust and Sign a Will Instead

FEBRUARY 2, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 5

Last week we suggested some of the reasons why you might think about having a revocable living trust as part of your estate planning documents. This week we’ll try to turn it around, and give you ten reasons why you might prefer to have a will (“just” a will) instead.

Let us be clear about two important points before we begin. First, our views are not shared by all lawyers. Some — especially those practicing in states with famously simple probate procedures — are vigorously opposed to revocable living trusts. Arizona’s probate procedures are quite simple; they are much simpler, actually, than most people think they will be. We are not opposed to revocable living trust, though. We tend to think of the question as a cost/benefit analysis. The trust will almost always be a more efficient plan, but the initial costs may not be justifiable in your circumstances.

Which leads to our second point: the cost of establishing a revocable living trust will almost always be considerably higher than the cost of preparing a will instead. How much more costly will depend on your situation and will vary quite a lot from lawyer to lawyer, but the benefits of living trust need to outweigh those costs before you make the plunge.

With that background let’s see if we can come up with ten reasons to favor a will rather than a living trust:

  • 10.There’s some reason you really ought to subject your estate to the probate process. Probate in Arizona is much less formidable than people think, but most people still want to avoid it. But there are two good things that happen with probate: (1) court supervision of the management and distribution of your assets, which might actually be beneficial in some cases, and (2) clear resolution of any remaining claims against your estate. That last one is usually more important for professionals — if you are a doctor, or lawyer, or architect, it might be advantageous to intentionally require a probate of your estate to get protection against possible lingering malpractice actions, for instance.
  • 9. You really want to understand your estate planning documents. Trusts actually can be a little daunting to understand. We take pride in our ability to write legally sufficient provisions in something approximating the English language, but we know that even our documents can be hard to understand. That’s a bigger problem for trusts than for wills. We can overcome this problem, of course, but only if you want to participate.
  • 8. Your personal situation is completely stable. You say you’re widowed, and have just one completely child? And that your child is completely trustworthy, has already provided for her own children’s educations, and doesn’t need any help or support from you? Great. Your plan is likely to be very uncomplicated, and we probably can come up with a way to execute it without the cost or hassle of creating a trust. Of course, things change — let us know if your child’s situation changes or the simplicity of your personal and financial situations unravel.
  • 7. You love paper, and take good care of it. Do you have a notebook that includes recent statements from all of your accounts, together with your accountant’s, your financial planner’s, your attorney’s and all your doctors’ names and contact information. We love you. You might not need a trust because you’ve already done a lot of the organizational work for your family. Please keep that notebook up to date.
  • 6. You hate paper. Maybe you are the opposite of the person described above. You can’t even remember all of your bank and investment accounts, and have a big, unsorted pile of paper sitting on the floor next to the desk in your office. In that case, the creation of the trust — and the important task of transferring assets to it — might overwhelm you, and make the will a more attractive option. Of course, you are the person who would benefit most from the organizational structure of creating and funding a trust, but there’s no magical incantation we can attach to the trust to make it happen automatically.
  • 5.  You are thrifty. Do you think regular lawyer visits and the cost of estate planning are just too high? Do you suspect that all of this is just an attempt to get you to part with your hard-earned money? You might benefit from a trust, but you might also be anxious about whether you are being oversold. Even if a trust is a slightly better option, your desire to save the extra costs needs to be acknowledged.
  • 4. You have already completed beneficiary designations for everything. Great! You might well have worked around the value of a living trust, and at a much lower cost. Of course, you need to think about future changes. What happens if a named beneficiary dies? What about the possibility that you spend more from your bank savings than from your brokerage account in the next ten years? Or the reverse? What if there’s a new grandchild, or a marriage or divorce, in your family? Of course changes happen whether you have a will, a trust or beneficiary designations — but in the case of beneficiary designations, you might need to make changes to a dozen different accounts/assets. And you need to actually do it, promptly and completely. Beneficiary designations are a great alternative, but require your continued diligence.
  • 3. Your assets are uncomplicated. Maybe you have only a few different assets, and they are typical. You have a house, a single bank account, an IRA, a car and a single brokerage account? That’s pretty uncomplicated, and there might be other options (beneficiary designations, for instance). Oh, wait — you also have life insurance, and a half dozen government bonds? That starts getting a little more complicated. A small art collection? Three different banks? Hmmm.
  • 2. Your estate is worth less than $75,000. That’s a magic number in Arizona. That’s how much your beneficiaries can collect without having to do a probate proceeding. More good news: that figure is the amount subject to the probate process that you can transfer. In other words, if your house has a beneficiary designation, and your bank account has a POD (pay on death) entry, then your heirs can use the $75,000 rule to collect your car and that small credit union account. You might not need a trust to avoid probate.
  • 1. The odds of your estate plan “maturing” (that is, the odds of you dying) in the next, say, five years are very slight. If you are 25, married, and leaving everything to your spouse, most of the benefits of a living trust will only appear if the two of you die at about the same time. While that could happen, it’s not too likely. The additional cost of a living trust might not make any sense in your circumstances.

Does that help? We hope so. We do want to help demystify this decision.

Top Ten Reasons You Might Want a Trust, Rather Than Just a Will

JANUARY 26, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 4

Do you need a living trust? Even with an estate tax threshold of over $5 million (and double that, for most married couples)? That is the primary question posed by most of our estate planning clients.

For years the answer depended mostly on the size of your estate. Not that there were (or are now) any inherent estate tax benefits to having created a living trust, but it was easier to take advantage of the easy ways of minimizing taxes using a trust than otherwise. So most Arizona couples worth more than about $1 million were urged to establish a trust. Couples who hoped to be worth more than $1 million often took the step, too — on the chance that their assets might grow enough to create a possible estate tax liability.

Then the federal government started raising the tax level, ending up at $5 million and indexed for inflation (so that the threshold for 2015 is $5.43 million). They ultimately changed the rules for married couples, too, making it easier for a surviving spouse to use his or her deceased spouse’s exemption, effectively doubling the level at which estate taxes were a driving factor. The State of Arizona jumped into the act, too, by repealing its state estate tax altogether. That all means that for more than 99% of Arizona individuals (and couples), estate taxes are no longer an important reason to consider creating a trust.

Does that mean that no one needs a living trust any more? Not exactly.

First, let’s think about people who established a trust back when it was an important step — do they need to consider revoking their trusts now? No. There are almost no downsides to creating a trust, other than the cost and trouble of setting them up in the first instance. Even though it might be hard to justify setting up a trust now, the individual (or couple) who has already gone through that process should probably not undo their earlier work.

Should a person worth well less than $5 million ever create a trust? Yes — at least in some situations.

Let’s get right to the point: what are the top reasons you might want to create a trust? With thanks and a nod to our associate attorney Elizabeth N. Rollings, who created the original list, here are our offerings:

  • 10. You really, really hate the thought of probate. It’s not the monster you probably think it is, but that’s not to say it’s a lot of fun, or cost-free. We can try to persuade you that it’s not that important to avoid probate — or we can just help you avoid the process.
  • 9. You favor privacy. There’s not all that much public disclosure involved in the probate process, and most of what does need to be disclosed can just be shared with your heirs. But there are some things that get into the public record, like the text of your will and the names and addresses of the people to whom you have left money or property. Do you have unusual family dynamics, or a publicly recognizable name, business or assets? You might prefer to create a trust.
  • 8. You want to make it easier for your executor. We don’t actually use the term “executor” any more, but we know what you mean. It’s simply easier for a successor trustee to get control of your assets than it is for that same person when they are named as agent on a power of attorney. It’s also easier to arrange for an orderly transition as you are less able — from having your chosen administrator named as successor trustee to naming them as co-trustee, and dividing the job in a reasonable — and flexible — way.
  • 7. You have complicated assets. Most people don’t think their assets are complicated. “I just have Certificates of Deposit in the four Tucson banks that pay the highest interest rates,” you say. Oh, and then there are the government bonds. Plus a brokerage account at a national low-cost broker, and a rollover IRA. Did you remember to mention those almost-worthless oil and gas rights you just learned about from your grandfather’s estate? Complicated, complicated. Having a trust makes it much easier for someone to handle your assets for you — both after your death and while you are still alive but not functioning at the top of your game. Oh, and there may be income tax benefits to having your assets in the trust (though you — or your spouse — may have to die in order to get the tax benefits. So maybe we’ll soft-pedal those).
  • 6. You have complicated distribution plans. This one is related to the previous one, and — as with “complicated” assets — clients seldom think their plans are complicated. “I just want to leave everything equally to my three children,” you tell us. Oh, plus $10,000 to each grandchild, and a $100,000 gift to your church. Also, a list of personal property and who is to get it. And some thoughts about what should happen if, god forbid, one of your children should die before you. The more complicated your distribution scheme, the more you need to consider a trust. Why? Because your distribution will be more private, and it’s easier to adjust to changes in your future (should your church’s gift go up as your net worth expands, or down as you draw down your IRA?).
  • 5. You have real estate in more than one state. Probate, as we have said before, is not as difficult as you probably think. But if you have real estate in more than one state, we have to go through the process in each state. Some states are much more complicated and expensive than Arizona. So if you have your home in Arizona, a condo in California, a summer place in Wisconsin, and a timeshare in Virginia, you might want to think about a living trust. Even if you only have two of those, you might be a better candidate for a trust.
  • 4. You have professional children, or wealthy children. Your son is an architect, and your daughter is a physician. Why do they need their inheritances to be in trust? They don’t — but it’s an extra gift from you to put them in trust. You can help protect their inheritance from creditors, malpractice claims, even divorce proceedings. And you might be able to keep your assets out of their estates when they die, thereby reducing the amount of estate tax the grandchildren pay.
  • 3. You have minor children, or children (or grandchildren) under about age 25. Why 25? Recent research suggests that that’s about the age at which a child’s brain really matures, even though the legal system considers them mature at 18. Of course you get to choose the cut-off age, but we are urging people to think about 25-or-so for their planning. Even if your children are older, a share of your estate might go to grandchildren — and they could be younger than the cut-off age you choose.
  • 2. You have a family member who is just not good with money. Is your son (or, for that matter, his wife) a bit of a spendthrift? Is your youngest still trying “find” herself? You might want to provide some sort of management for that beneficiary’s share of your estate.
  • 1. You have a child or grandchild with a disability. Are they receiving public benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Medicaid (in Arizona, AHCCCS)? You need to create a special needs trust for any share they will receive. Are they not on public benefits right now? You probably still want to consider a special needs trust, because you don’t know how things will change over time. The same rules apply for any person you plan to leave money to, including your long-time housekeeper’s son or the young woman who grew up with your kids and was treated like a member of the family. We just use “child or grandchild” because they are the most common recipients.

Any of those sound like you? Let’s talk about whether a living trust is the right choice. Oh, and if you don’t live in Arizona — talk to your own lawyer, who might rearrange the order, drop some of these points altogether, and add others.

Definitions For Common Estate Planning Terms

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.

Determining Which Court Has Jurisdiction Over Your Trust

JANUARY 13, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 2

In the past four or five decades there has been a tremendous growth in the use of trusts (usually, but not always, revocable living trusts) for estate planning purposes. Once very rare, they are now very popular. Perhaps as many as half of our estate planning clients choose to create a trust, and to transfer most or all of their assets into the trust’s name. Of course, one of the primary reasons to create a trust is usually to avoid probate court, or (in fact) any court involvement in handling your estate.

In about the same time frame, Americans have become very mobile. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common — and usually expected — that most people would live, work and die in the same community where they were born. Today it seems rare not to have moved once, twice or even more times, both before and after retirement. In fact, U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest that the average American will move about a dozen times during her lifetime; at age 45, that average drops significantly, but still indicates about three more moves.

What do these two trends have to do with one another? Any lawyer can tell you: it’s often hard to figure out what court will have jurisdiction over trust disputes.

Wait — wasn’t the primary reason to establish a living trust based on a desire to avoid court? Yes, but things happen. Disgruntled family members do sometimes challenge trusts (though probably less often than they challenge wills). Trustees do steal funds, or mismanage them. Beneficiaries sometimes do believe that the trustee has misbehaved, even when she hasn’t. Trusts end up in court.

But which court? And what state’s laws apply to interpreting a trust when there is a dispute?

Here’s a general rule: a trust’s “situs” is usually where the trustee lives, not where the trust was written, or where the beneficiary lives, or even where the trust says it will be interpreted. “Situs” is not precisely the same as jurisdiction, but you can think of it as where the trust “lives.” And that, generally, is where the courts have jurisdiction over the trust and its trustee.

Let’s take a typical case to explain this legal principle. Allen and Melinda, a married couple, live in Alaska. They create a revocable living trust, naming themselves as trustee. The trust says that Alaska law applies. Upon the death of either Allen or Melinda, the surviving spouse remains as trustee. The trust is fully revocable by both of them, or by the survivor upon the death of either. So far, so good: Alaska courts are probably the only ones with jurisdiction — and even Alaska courts probably can’t do much with the trust while Allen or Melinda lives, since the trust is fully revocable.

Upon the death of both Allen and Melinda, though, the trust changes. By its terms, it becomes irrevocable — and their son Dave takes over as successor trustee. Dave lives in Arizona. A share of the trust continues, with Dave as trustee, for the benefit of Deborah and Diane, two of their other children. Deborah lives in Alaska, and Diane lives in Delaware (of course). If Diane thinks Dave is mishandling the trust, where does she hire a lawyer, and where will that lawyer end up filing a lawsuit? Delaware, where she lives? That doesn’t seem right.

But wait — maybe it will be Deborah (the one who stayed in Alaska) who consults a lawyer. It might make more sense for her to initiate any lawsuit in Alaska, since that’s where their parents lived, the trust was written and at least one beneficiary lives. Plus the trust says Alaska law applies.

Those are essentially the facts of a recent Arizona Court of Appeals case (though the names of everyone in the family, and most of the states involved, have been changed). Before we tell you the answer, we’ll pause for a moment for you to decide whether Arizona has jurisdiction over Allen and Melinda’s trust.

You’ve made up your mind? Okay, but hold on to that thought. We’ve misled you, ever so slightly. While Deborah and Diane are unhappy with Dave’s management of the trust, neither of them has filed a lawsuit at all. It’s actually Dave who has filed something with the court — he has filed a request that the Arizona court look over his administration of the trust, and bless the actions he has taken. If it works, it would prevent Deborah and Diane from challenging him later. Dave has done this relying on a provision of Arizona law permitting trustees to affirmatively seek court review of their administration of the trust.

The probate court where Dave filed his trust accounting action dismissed the petition, deciding that Dave should return to the state where the trust was written and Deborah lives. The Arizona Court of Appeals disagreed, ordering the probate court to go ahead and review Dave’s accounting. Arizona courts have jurisdiction, said the appellate judges, because Dave lives in Arizona and the trust is actually administered in Arizona Matter of the Lavery Living Trust, December 10, 2013.

There are still unanswered questions here. If Deborah had filed something in Alaska before Dave filed in Arizona, could the Alaska courts have made Dave go there to defend his actions? It’s not clear from the facts laid out in the opinion, but perhaps. Could Diane have made Dave defend himself in Delaware? Probably not, though that wasn’t an issue being decided in the Arizona court proceeding. In the Arizona court proceeding, whose law will apply? It’s not completely certain, but probably Arizona law will govern trust administration questions and Alaska law will govern any interpretations to be applied to the trust’s terms.

Trust jurisdiction and where to have a trustee’s actions reviewed is a somewhat unsettled area of the law. It is also very dependent on the facts of an individual case. Want to challenge a trustee, or are you a trustee seeking approval of your actions? Talk to your lawyer about situs, jurisdiction, governing law and the difference between those concepts.

Trust Administration Dispute Ends Up Costly for Complainant

MAY 20, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 20
One of the reasons people create living trusts is to reduce the likelihood of disputes among family members. In fact, any well-written estate plan — whether it involves a living trust or not — should focus at least partly on that worthwhile goal. Most estates do get settled without disputes, and those with disputes are often easily resolved because the trust, will, and beneficiary designations are clear. But if family members are determined to be fractious, no amount of careful planning can completely remove the risk of a costly dispute.

Take the revocable living trust of Lorraine Bird (not her real name). It was prepared by a lawyer in 2003, and it contained straightforward provisions: most of Lorraine’s property was to be divided in half, with one half to go to her son Greg and the other half to her son Tony’s two children. Tony was named as successor trustee. like many revocable trusts, the document included a “Schedule A” listing the assets that Lorraine was transferring to the trust’s name.

The first problems arose when Lorraine started writing on the trust document directly. In 2004, 2006 and twice in 2008 she wrote on Schedule A, indicating what should happen to some items of her property. Also in 2008, while she was in hospice, she had Tony’s wife write out an amendment to the trust indicating that, among other things, her gold coins should be divided between her two sons. Lorraine died shortly thereafter, apparently without having her trust looked at or formally updated by her lawyer.

The next round of problems arose after her death, when Tony (the successor trustee) gave Greg the keys to their mother’s house. Greg removed some items; Tony asked for a listing of what Greg had taken, but the list he got back did not account for all the missing items. Tony hired a lawyer to assist him in administering the trust, and pursuing Gary for more detail about the property in his possession.

The most valuable item in Lorraine’s trust was a piece of real estate northeast of Phoenix. At first Greg wanted it sold and the proceeds divided between him and his niece and nephew. In fact, though he didn’t have any authority, Greg put a “For Sale” sign on the property and listed his own phone number. He also offered to let his niece and nephew buy out his interest in the property. Later he changed his mind, and insisted that his brother should distribute the property to the three beneficiaries and let them decide how to handle it.

Tony had the property appraised, and his children approached Greg with the appraisal results in hand. They offered to buy out his interest for $325,000. If he didn’t want to do that, they would sell him their interest for the same amount. Greg refused, and instead offered to purchase their interests for a total of $153,000. Then Greg filed a civil lawsuit against his niece and nephew, asking the court to divide the property. He also filed a complaint against his brother, alleging that Tony had breached his duties as trustee by not distributing the property in kind, had made allegations of theft against him, and had favored his own children over Greg in his handling of the trust.

The judge consolidated the two actions, and conducted a three-day trial. There were a number of questions to answer, including:

  • Did Lorraine’s handwritten notes on Schedule A modify her trust?
  • Was the separate amendment prepared by her daughter-in-law valid?
  • Did the trust require distribution of her property in kind? If the trust was unclear, is there a presumption in favor of in-kind distributions?
  • Who should pay the cost of the legal proceedings to resolve these questions?

At the very end of the trial, Greg and his niece and nephew struck a deal on the property: Greg bought out their interests for $325,000. There were still a number of issues to resolve, however, and the judge ended up making eight separate rulings. She found that Tony had not breached his fiduciary duty, but that Greg had initiated most of the problems by his own actions. She also ruled that Greg pay a total of $176,466 to the other parties for attorneys fees, and another $4,979.19 in costs.

Greg appealed, arguing that Tony had mismanaged the trust by not distributing the property in kind, pursuing him for personal property that turned out to have little economic value, and various other alleged breaches. Among them: Greg insisted that by asking his own son to help find a real estate broker for the property, without telling Greg, Tony had favored one trust beneficiary over the others. Similarly, Tony’s daughter had sent Tony an e-mail calling Greg names; when Greg later learned about it he insisted that Tony had breached his duty to all the beneficiaries by not promptly sharing that e-mail.

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the trial court ruling in pretty much every respect. It was not a breach of fiduciary duty to talk with one beneficiary without sharing every detail with the others. Tony did not violate his duty to resolve the trust administration just because Greg beat him to the courthouse with a petition asking the court to determine whether the handwritten amendments were valid. Even if there was an argument that Tony should distribute the property in kind, it was rendered moot by Greg’s agreement with his niece and nephew resolving the dispute. Greg’s own misbehavior made it inappropriate for him to complain about the cost of getting him to comply with the trustee’s requests for information about personal property he had taken from his mother’s house. It was proper to charge him the attorneys fees and costs incurred in defending his lawsuit. Perhaps most tellingly, the Court of Appeals added more costs and attorneys fees, awarding Tony and his children their requested fees and costs for having to respond to the appeal itself. In re Bower Revocable Trust, May 14, 2013.

It is worth pointing out (again — we make this point with some regularity) that the dispute was both expensive and time-consuming. In addition to approximately $200,000 in fees and costs Greg was ordered to pay for Tony’s and his children’s lawyers, Greg presumably had significant legal fees for his own side of the litigation. The Court of Appeals decision was rendered more than four years after Lorraine’s death (and that was speedier than most similar cases in our experience).

Are there clues and tips in Lorraine’s story that could help other families avoid similar costly delays in handling estates? Yes, there are several, including at least these:

  1. Don’t modify your estate planning documents by writing on them directly — even if you date and sign the changes (Lorraine didn’t). Although Lorraine might have paid a couple thousand dollars to have the changes done right, that would have been less than 1% of the total legal cost generated when she did not do that.
  2. Do your children not get along? Then include some language directing how to resolve disputes. Consider a mandatory arbitration provision in your trust as a way of speeding up dispute resolution — such a provision could prevent any beneficiary from forcing a complicated court proceeding.
  3. Are you administering a trust with a contentious beneficiary? Even though you may not have to, you might want to consider complete disclosure and transparency, and do not hesitate to affirmatively seek court direction rather than let problems fester and perhaps become intractable.
  4. Are you pretty sure you’re right, and your sibling/trustee/beneficiary is wrong? Do a reality check, and then do it again — there is a real risk that you could end up paying everyone’s legal fees.
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