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TRUSTS: A way to control your assets from the grave

CHARLESTON wealth-management consultant Elizabeth Keightley has helped clients of all socioeconomic groups plan their estates.

There was the retired teacher who remarried after her husband died. The client wanted to make sure her new husband received money if she died. But, after he died, she wanted the rest of the estate to go to the children from her first marriage and their children.

“This wasn’t a terribly wealthy family — somebody with a reasonable amount of wealth, but not a multimillionaire,” she said.

For as many different income and asset levels she encounters, there are just as many reasons for designing trusts. There have been clients who design trusts so their children receive money spread out over time. Others stipulate the beneficiary must be gainfully employed.

Contrary to stereotypes about rich, spoiled “trust fund babies,” trusts aren’t necessarily just for the wealthy.

They’re for people who don’t want to heft over a huge hunk of their estate in taxes to the government, people who want to make sure their children have money if both parents die or to guarantee their money will flow to a charity after their death.

Trusts are legal entities designed to hold and manage assets from a person’s estate. Estates can include houses, personal property, cars, boats, investments, retirement plan assets, life insurance death benefits and business assets if you own your own business.

“Trusts can be a wonderful way to control your assets from the grave and make sure your own intentions are fulfilled,” Keightley said.

When someone sets up a trust they transfer their property from their name to the trust and appoint a trustee to manage the assets. In some cases, the person setting up the trust will also be the trustee until they die or become incapacitated. When the person setting up the trust dies, a bank, lawyer, trust company, friend or relative can serve as the trustee. In other cases, a person will have a will and upon their death, their assets will transfer from the will to the trust.

Trusts can be set up at any point in life or upon death. Charleston estate planning attorney John F. Hussell IV says he sees people who want to set up trusts when they’re 35 to plan for their minor children’s financial future. People in their 50s might set up a trust for tax advantage reasons and people in their 70s set up trusts to make sure their adult children and grandchildren will receive parts of their estate.

“The reasons change but the need doesn’t change,” he said.

About half of Hussell’s clients ask him to set up trusts for tax advantages.

In 2004, each person is allotted a $1.5 million exemption from the federal estate tax. That exemption increases to $2 million in 2006 and $3.5 million in 2009. There is no estate tax in 2010 and in 2011, the exemption goes back to $1 million.

Assets in the estate above that exempt amount are subject to a 48 percent estate tax this year, Hussell said.

For example, if a wife in a couple with a combined $3 million net worth dies and leaves all the money to her husband, only $1.5 million of the estate is exempt from taxes without a trust. When the husband dies, the trust’s beneficiary would have to pay $705,000 in federal and state taxes, Hussell said.

But, if the couple sets up a credit shelter trust, the wife and husband would each get a $1.5 million exemption when they die and no one would owe taxes.

Hussell recommends that anyone with a net worth of $1 million or more have a trust set up to avoid being slammed with taxes upon their death.

But, not everyone sets up trusts to avoid paying taxes. Often, Hussell has people visit his office with a net worth of $100,000 or less who want to set up a trust for their children who are under 18 years old.

People often set up trusts to provide money for their minor children, in the event both parents should die. A will allows money to be distributed to children when they turn 18. Trusts allow money to be dispersed when the person who drafted the trust decides and can designate how the money is spent.

This provision can come in handy if parents are concerned that their children might not be finically savvy or could be easily manipulated.

“It protects people from themselves,” Hussell said.

Then, there are trusts people can set up that provide money for their children or relatives with disabilities. These trusts allow the beneficiary to continue to receive public assistance as well as money from the trust.

Other people set up trusts to avoid going through probate, the legal processing of a will. Once assets are in a trust, they aren’t made public. Assets left in a will are made public during the probate process, which can take six months to a year, said Charleston lawyer Marc J. Slotnick.

Trusts are more expensive than wills. A basic set of tax-conscious, estate-planning documents, which includes a will, trust, medical and business power of attorney, and living will can cost $2,000 to $3,000, Hussell said. It might cost around $500 to just set up a trust for the benefit of minor children.

Then, there are the fees companies can charge to manage the trust after the trust holder’s death. Banks will charge around $2,500 a year to administer the trust, Hussell said.

A basic will that doesn’t include any minor children or trusts can cost around $100, Slotnick said. The will’s executor, who is the person or company in charge of handing out the estate’s assets, is entitled to charge 5 percent of the estate’s value. Most companies will charge 4 to 4 1/2 percent for this one-time fee, Hussell said.

Regardless of whether a trust is for you, Slotnick stresses the importance of having at least a will. Dying without a will means state law will designate who gets the assets of the estate or custody of your children.

“It probably doesn’t do what you want it to do,” he said.

To contact staff writer Jennifer Ginsberg, use e-mail or call 348-5195.


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