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In my experience, estate planning is one of the most important, and simultaneously least understood, areas of the law. Perhaps this is because none of us ever see how our own estate plan (or lack thereof) plays out after we are gone. Maybe it’s because there’s just a certain amount of mystery associated with death. Or it might be because people just don’t want to deal with death or the consequences thereof. Whatever it is, there just seem to be a lot of myths and half-truths circulating around this area of the law, and when clients actually get started with their estate plans, they tend to have a lot of questions.
At KKOS, the first line of defense on many of those questions is our fantastic estate planning paralegal, Julie Deck. Julie and I came up with a list of some of the most frequently asked estate planning questions, and I will answer them below:
Do I need a will if I have a trust?
The answer to this is a pretty emphatic YES! In a comprehensive estate plan, the trust is definitely going to be the star player. The trust is where you name beneficiaries as divide up assets owned by the trust. If you have done your estate plan correctly, you have “funded” the trust with the vast majority of your assets – things like real estate, interests in LLC’s and corporations, bank and brokerage accounts, and beneficiary designations for retirement accounts and life insurance policies.
However, the trust only deals with assets it owns. If for some reason you fail to “fund” the trust with the correct assets, then your will kicks in to deal with these assets. When you have a trust, your will will essentially say “distribute my assets as my trust directs,” but having the will in place is crucial to make sure the decisions you make in your trust are honored. If you have a trust, but no will, and you die with assets titled in your own name, then those assets may end up being distributed according to your state’s intestacy laws – instead of how your trust directs.
The will is also where you designate a guardian for your minor children and/or adult children with special needs. This makes sense because the trust only deals with assets it owns – and it doesn’t own your kids! Making this guardian designation is an absolutely crucial step for parents. Without a will, the question of who will be your children’s guardian is left to the courts, and I have personally seen the bitterness that can ensue when in-laws fight over who is supposed to watch after the children left behind when parents die.
Can a beneficiary of my trust also be my Successor Trustee when I die?
Absolutely, although it certainly isn’t required. This is actually usually what people choose to do. They typically name all their children as equal trust beneficiaries, and then designate one or more of those children as the Successor Trustee(s). However, this can open up the Successor Trustee to claims of bias or conflict of interest – especially in highly emotional situations or situations where the beneficiaries don’t necessarily get along. To avoid claims of bias, someone who is both a beneficiary and a trustee may want to take measures to safeguard his position. Such steps include: choosing an estate planning attorney to mediate or oversee the process, using fair methods for dividing unassigned personal property with emotional value, and involving an impartial appraiser if real property is involved. If an individual feels he cannot impartially act in both positions, an independent third-party can always be appointed to serve as trustee.
How do my assets actually get into my trust?
This is a very important question, because as I mentioned above, your trust only deals with assets it owns. If the trust doesn’t own any assets, then it’s really nothing more than a very expensive paperweight. Some people seem to think that assets magically get poured into the trust upon execution. Obviously, that isn’t the case. Different assets are transferred into a trust in different ways. Here is how the most common trust assets make their way into a trust:

  • Real Estate – must be deeded into the name of the trust by executing and recording a deed.
  • Corporation, LLC, and Partnership Interests – a formal stock, membership interest, or partnership interest agreement is executed and kept in the corporate book of the company involved.
  • Bank and Brokerage Accounts – you can speak with the financial institution(s) where you hold your accounts and they will help you execute documents to change ownership of those accounts into the name of the trust.
  • Retirement Accounts – the trust doesn’t actually become the owner of any retirement account during your lifetime. However, it can be named as a death beneficiary of any such accounts. You can make the necessary changes by requesting a beneficiary designation form from your account administrator.
  • Life Insurance Policies – you can name the trust as a beneficiary on life insurance policies as well.

How do I know the trustee I select isn’t just going to do whatever they want with my assets after I die?
You don’t know for sure! This is why it is very important to select responsible and trustworthy people to serve as trustees. It can also be a reason to select co-trustees who are required to act together. This ensures there are always two sets of eyes on every transaction. Another option is to name a third-party trust company, attorney, or accountant to serve as trustee (of course, these people will also charge for their time in acting as a trustee). Additionally, trustees are bound by a fiduciary duty to execute the trust as you direct. If they fail to do so, they can be sued by the beneficiaries, and the penalties can be steep.
In summary, these are just a few of the most common questions we get when helping clients with their estate plans. There are many others, and you may have specific questions that may not pertain to anyone else’s situation. That is why it is so important to get a knowledgeable estate planning attorney involved when you are making these important decisions.