Living Trusts

Avoiding probate court proceedings after your death can save your family time, money, and headaches. Revocable living trusts are the only probate-avoidance technique that allows you to avoid probate for virtually any property you own: real estate, jewelry, heirlooms, bank accounts, and much more. Revocable living trusts function like wills--you use them to leave your property, and if you change your mind at any time while you're alive, you can change the terms of the trust or revoke it altogether. The advantage comes at your death. Property in the trust is controlled by the person you named to take over as successor trustee, and that person has the power to distribute the property to inheritors without any probate court involvement. That saves everyone a lot of work and gets property to the people you chose to inherit it much more quickly.

What is a living trust?

A trust is an arrangement under which one person, called a trustee, holds legal title to property for another person, called a beneficiary. You can be the trustee of your own living trust, keeping full control over all property held in trust.

A "living trust" (also called an "inter vivos" trust) is simply a trust you create while you're alive, rather than one that is created at your death. Different kinds of living trusts can help you avoid probate, reduce estate taxes, or set up long-term property. 

Why should I make a living trust?

The big advantage to making a living trust is that property left through the trust doesn't have to go through probate court. In a nutshell, probate is the court-supervised process of paying your debts and distributing your property to the people who inherit it.

The average probate drags on for months before the inheritors get anything. And by that time, there's less for them to get: In many cases, about 5% of the property has been eaten up by lawyer and court fees.

Still, not everyone has to worry about probate, and some people don't need a living trust at all. 

How does a living trust avoid probate?

Property you transfer into a living trust before your death doesn't go through probate. The successor trustee -- the person you appoint to handle the trust after your death -- simply transfers ownership to the beneficiaries you named in the trust. In many cases, the whole process takes only a few weeks, and there are no lawyer or court fees to pay. When all of the property has been transferred to the beneficiaries, the living trust ceases to exist. 

Does a living trust protect property from creditors?

No. A creditor who wins a lawsuit against you can go after the trust property just as if you still owned it in your own name.

Generally, after your death, all property you owned -- including assets held in a living trust -- is subject to your lawful debts. For example, if your house is held in trust and passes to your children at your death, a creditor could demand that they pay the debt, up to the value of the house. Ownership of real estate is always a matter of public record, so creditors can always find out who inherited real estate. It can be more difficult for creditors to know who inherits other property, however (because a trust document, unlike a will, is not a matter of public record), and they may not bother tracking it down.

On the other hand, probate can also offer a kind of protection from creditors. During probate, known creditors must be notified of the death and given a chance to file claims. If they miss the deadline to file, they're out of luck forever.

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