The concept is simple. When a revocable living trust is established, the name on the titles to the client’s assets is changed to the trustee of the trust. Legally, the individual no longer owns the assets; the trustee of the trust owns them. Thus, when the individual becomes disabled or dies, there is no reason for the court to become involved. The trustee (or successor trustee) already has the legal authority to transact business with the assets. The trust is made revocable so the client retains the power to change his or her mind as well as adapt their plan to changes in their assets, their family, and the law.

Planning Tip: Most people name themselves as trustee of their revocable living trust so they can keep control of their assets, naming a successor to step in when they can no longer conduct business due to incapacity or death. Many include a corporate trustee as co-trustee for professional asset management.

Avoiding Probate

Probate administration is very state specific; procedures and costs vary greatly from state to state. Wills do not avoid probate. Assets titled in the client’s name at death and assets that are directed by a will must go through the probate process before they can be distributed to the heirs. If a client dies intestate (without a will), their assets will be distributed according to the probate laws in that state, which will almost certainly not be what the client would want. If a client owns out-of-state real property, probate is usually required in each state in which the client owned real property at death.

As explained earlier, many assets (survivorship and pay-on-death property, life insurance, IRAs, defined contribution retirement plans, and annuities) are designed to pass outside of probate. That can result in an uncoordinated estate plan. Moreover, many clients—and even attorneys and professionals—fail to understand the importance of asset titling and beneficiary designations, and it is not unusual for a non-probate asset to become a probate asset because of a title or beneficiary designation that is incorrect or out of date.

Living trusts can avoid the need for probate altogether if the titles of all assets have been vested in the trustee and all beneficiary designations have been changed to the trustee of the trust. However, probate avoidance requires rigorous maintenance of titling and beneficiary designations. All it takes to require probate is for your client to open a bank or brokerage account in their individual name instead of as trustee. Also, because living trusts are valid in all states, the need for multiple probates can be eliminated.

Planning Tip: It is important to avoid any asset or beneficiary designation not being changed to the trust. If one is forgotten, or the valid reason for not putting it into the trust to begin with no longer exists, probate may become necessary. If that happens, the client’s “pour-over" will, a standard accompanying document to a living trust, will redirect the asset into the client’s trust. The asset may have to go through probate first, but it can then be distributed according to the client’s instructions in the trust.

Planning Tip: It is usually advisable to transfer a client’s home and all their other valuable assets to their trust to make sure they all become part of the unified trust-based estate plan.

Privacy and Confidentiality

Once filed for probate, a will becomes a public document. Moreover, many states have a statutory requirement to file a decedent’s will even if there is no probate. With rare exceptions, probate files are open to the public, and private information has become a commodity. Do clients really want the planning they have put in place for their loved ones and what their loved ones will inherit to become public information?

Living trusts are not a matter of public record. While some states now do require some notices, a living trust provides more privacy than any other estate planning mechanism.

How to Distribute Assets to Heirs

Distributions made outright to your client’s heirs have no protection from the variety of risks to which personally-held assets are exposed. Once distributed, the heirs can use those assets however they choose and the assets can be subject to their creditors’ claims. However, bequests that are kept “in trust" for the benefit of the heirs enjoy protection from creditors, predators (including ex-spouses), irresponsible spending (protection from “self") and future estate taxes. Assets kept in trust can also provide for individuals with special needs without affecting their entitlement to valuable government benefits.

Basic Estate and Gift Tax Rules

Proper estate planning should always consider estate and gift tax rules. The estate and gift taxes are transfer taxes. They apply to everything your client owns unless their transfer falls under a tax exclusion. Here are the rules for federal transfer taxes that, unless changed, will be in effect until the end of 2012:

* Estate transfers and gifts are taxed at a flat 35%.

* There is a $13,000 annual exclusion for present interest gifts to each individual. (Amount is indexed for inflation.)

* There is an unlimited marital deduction applicable to gifts to a U.S. citizen spouse.

* There is a $5,120,000 unified exclusion for gifts and death transfers not covered by annual exclusions or a marital or charitable deduction. Under current legislation, it becomes $1 million in 2013.

* There is an unlimited charitable deduction.

Of course, any exemptions that are not used in planning are lost when the client dies or tax laws change. Speaking of change, there is a major change scheduled for December 31, 2012.

Under current law, on January 1, 2013, the maximum transfer rate will increase from 35% to 55% and the unified exclusion will be reduced from $5,120,000 to $1,000,000.

What can we expect between now and 2013? This is definitely a political issue, and one that the House Democrats have targeted. Possibilities bandied about include a $5 million unified exclusion and 35% tax rate; $3.5 million unified exclusion and 45% tax rate; permanent repeal; the end of the unified exclusion; and a $1 million exclusion with graduated rates up to 55%.

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