Estate Planning Overview, 101
If you're reading this article, it's probably not for entertainment value. And if you're reading for entertainment, then you're either a masochist or you're actually interested in what I have to say. It could be both, I guess. Whatever the reason, estate planning is an important topic, regardless of your station in life.
So what does it mean to have an estate plan? The better question is: why does it matter? This is not easy stuff. It deals with death and dying and the future. Of course, nobody wants to think about this stuff. But unfortunately, it's the pink elephant in the room. And it's not all that bad, actually.
Generally, an estate plan is a set of instructions that spell out how your property should be managed and distributed during your life and after death. The attorney (yours truly) is basically a conduit that channels your wishes onto paper in a way that make sense and have the most effect. Okay, maybe it's not that simple, but this should give you some idea. The estate plan should be a reflection of your life and vision. And don't confuse the word "estate" with a gated 8000 square foot villa with your initials on the entry gate. Your estate is all that you own in real estate and other assets.
At one point or another, most of us who own property think about what will happen to our property when we die. We think about stuff like, "Who will get my 1984 Honda Civic?" That's a legitimate concern. Nobody is going to want it, but the concern is no less legitimate. But what if you become disabled? And what happens when you get old and feeble minded? There may come a time where we will live out our lives without sufficient mental and/or physical capacity to manage our own affairs. Look, we all know or knew someone who started to "lose it." We can all remember thinking this or saying something like, "hey, is it me, or is Uncle Joe beginning to lose it?"
Enter the estate plan. The estate plan deals with the management of your property and financial affairs. There are two main types of estate plans: one is built around a Will and the other around a Revocable Living Trust. Each has it pros and cons. But as long as you have your wits about you, you can always make changes to the plan along the way. That being said, it's important to have an estate plan in place now because you don't know when you might become the "Uncle Joe."
A Will is the most common document used to specify how an estate should be handled after death. The person or entity designated to receive your property under the Will is called a Beneficiary. The person whose property is to be disposed by the Will is the Testator or Testatrix.
Like a Trust, the Will can set out different instructions, such as who gets certain property or who will be the guardian of Testator's minor child in the event that no parent is alive. It can be used to disinherit someone. It can set conditions on inheritance, such as the requirement that the Beneficiary first reach the age or 25 or graduate from college.
And then there's the dreaded P word - PROBATE. There's no getting around it. When a person dies and leaves property in a Will, probate is the legal proceeding that is used to wind up his or her legal and financial affairs. It's best described as a court-supervised process by where assets are gathered, valued, and distributed according to the Testator's last wishes as stated in the Will.
Probate proceedings are held in Superior Court for the county in which the Testator lived. The Executor (the person who administers the estate) is responsible for protecting a deceased person's property until all debts and taxes have been paid, and seeing that what's left is transferred to those who are entitled to it. Their job includes making an inventory of the estate's assets, locating creditors, paying bills, filing tax returns, and managing the estate assets. Finally, when this is all done, a petition is filed with the court requesting a distribution to the Beneficiaries. The whole process can take many months and sometimes years to complete.
As you can imagine, probate can also be very expensive. The Probate Code sets the maximum amount that attorneys and personal representatives (i.e. executors, administrators, etc.) can charge. As of 2016, the fees are four percent of the first $100,000 of the estate, three percent of the next $100,000, two percent of the next $800,000, one percent of the next $9,000,000, and one-half percent of the next $15,000,000. On top of that, a probate referee is appointed to appraise all of the non-cash items. This person usually takes one percent of the total assets appraised. All of this can add up very quickly. Although it's safe to say that most of us will probably not die with an estate valued at $15 million, the probate process can easily reduce the size of the estate by tens of thousands of dollars.
And of course there's the privacy issue, or lack thereof. When a Will is admitted to probate it becomes a matter of public record, including the details of what your assets are and who's in line to get them. Some may have legitimate reasons for following the probate matter, like a beneficiary's creditor who's looking to collect. Other unscrupulous types may want to know who to bamboozle.
THE REVOCABLE LIVING TRUST
A Living Trust is established with a document, usually a Declaration of Trust or a Trust Agreement. It's basically a relationship whereby property (real or personal, tangible or intangible) is held by one party for the benefit of another. A Living Trust conventionally arises when property is transferred to a separate Trustee to hold for the Beneficiary. However, that's not always necessary.
The person creating the Living Trust is called the Settlor or Trustor (these are synonymous). The Settlor appoints a Trustee to manage the Trust assets. The Trusee holds legal title to property for the benefit of another, also known as the Beneficiary. Although the Beneficiary does not own legal title to the property, he or she is said to own beneficial title. So you can imagine that the Trustee cannot do anything with the property that does not benefit the Beneficiary, like sell some off and pocket the money. It may be easier to think about a Trust like a Corporation. The Trustee is the CEO and the Beneficiaries are the shareholders. And it's not uncommon for Trustee to also be a Beneficiary, although it's advisable that a Co-Trustee be named as well.
A Living Trust should usually be accompanied by a Last Will and Testament, also known as a "pour-over will." The Will should say that property that is outside of the Trust is to be distributed to the Trustee of the Trust when the Testator dies. As long as the property outside of the Trust is valued at less than $100,000, probate can be avoided. The benefit is that property not previously placed in the Trust will get "poured" into it. Even if the property exceeds $100,000 and has to go through probate, it will eventually be distributed according to the instructions of the deceased instead of being distributed according to California law. It may also be a good idea to name the same person to be both the Executor of the Will and the Trustee of the Trust, since he or she will dealing with the same property.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
So what's the point of all of this mumbo jumbo? Well, just that it's easy to overlook the necessity of a proper estate plan. A Living Trust helps to protect you, your assets, and those people and/or entities who you want to leave your assets to when you're gone.
A good reason to create a Living Trust is to keep your estate plan private. Unlike a Will and probate, the Living Trust is a private contract between you (the Settlor) and the Trustee. It does not need to be filed with the county. The only way it can become public is if a dispute arises and someone files a lawsuit, which is possible.
Another major benefit of a Living Trust is that it has the ability to protect you in the event that you become disabled. The Trust can specify how your incapacity should be determined, how you should be taken care of if you're deemed disabled, and who will be able to manage your property if you can't. A Living Trust is written so that your Trustee can automatically jump into the driver's seat if you become ill or incapacitated. This will keep you and your property outside of court-supervised guardianship or conservatorship. The more you can keep the court out of your life and affairs, the better.
A Living Trust also allows you to dispense with your property in the manner that you choose. For example, many families have a child who has or had some problems in life. This may range from physical challenges to addiction to partying in Las Vegas with prostitutes every weekend. A Living Trust can provide for financial support to others without giving them direct control of the trust property.
Finally, a Living Trust makes it possible to avoid having to go through probate. How? It's simple - the property is titled in the name of the Trust when you die. Your Trust does not check out just because you do. Only those assets that are titled in your name at the time of death go through probate.
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