What is a Trust…and Do I Need One?

What is a Trust…and Do I Need One?

Most people know that a will is an important piece of the estate planning puzzle, but there are many misconceptions about trusts. Most people believe that trusts are reserved for the very wealthy. While it’s true that not everyone needs a trust, it is hardly limited to those with multi-million dollar estates. Depending on your estate planning goals, assets, and wishes, a trust may be a very viable option for you—even if your estate is modest.

But, what is a trust…and how do you know if you need one?

What is a trust?

A trust is a legal contract that ensures the proper distribution of assets to the trustor’s beneficiaries. Assets can be distributed in the exact manner you wish them to be. The individual creating the trust—called a ‘trustor’ or ‘grantor’—places title to his or her assets into the ownership of the trust. The process of transferring assets to the trust is called ‘trust funding,’ and is an essential part of successful trust creation. The trustor will also name a person to manage and administer the assets held in the trust, called a ‘trustee.’ A well-organized and regularly maintained trust has the potential to save your loved ones from certain headaches, like probate court, and can offer tax benefits for inheritances, as well as more privacy and control over your assets.

General Guidelines

Generally speaking, trusts may be a viable option for you if you have a net worth of $100,000 or more, a considerable portfolio of real estate and other tangible assets, or detailed instructions for how you’d like your assets to be distributed to your beneficiaries when you pass away. It’s important to note that these recommendations are not set in stone, as each circumstance is highly unique, and even those who don’t meet these guidelines may still benefit from drafting a trust.

Types of Trusts

To further answer the question “what is a trust,” and determine whether a trust will fit your unique needs, it’s important to understand the different types of trusts that exist, and what makes them different. The most common types of trusts include:

  • Revocable (aka ‘Living’) Trust: This flexible trust allows you to cancel, maintain, and make amendments to the trust while you’re still alive. A revocable trust isn’t subject to probate, but doesn’t always protect assets from creditors, as the trustor still legally owns the assets that have been transferred to the trust.
  • Irrevocable Trust: Contrary to a revocable trust, irrevocable trusts are not able to be revoked or amended without the consent of all beneficiaries named in the trust. While this certainly limits the flexibility of the trust, it better protects the trustor from creditors and lawsuits. Additionally, an irrevocable trust can help minimize estate tax liabilities.
  • Testamentary Trust: Also referred to as a ‘will trust’ this type of trust is generated from a last will and testament, becoming effective (and irrevocable) after the trustor passes away. Testamentary trusts ensure that assets are distributed to beneficiaries at a designated time—known as the ‘trust expiration,’—which is prompted by a triggering event, such as the beneficiary turning a certain age. Because this trust is part of a will, it must go through probate before the trust can be created.
  • Charitable Trust: This type of irrevocable trust allows you to leave behind a legacy of giving. Charitable trusts are often established to reduce estate and gift tax liabilities. A charitable remainder trust (CRT) carries the added benefit of providing a source of income to you or your beneficiaries during the trust term. At the time of your passing, all remaining assets will then be distributed to the designated charity.
  • Special Needs Trust: Parents and guardians of children and adults with a disability can use this type of trust to protect a beneficiary’s eligibility for needs-based government programs, like SSI and Medicaid. This allows trustors the ability to provide financially for these beneficiaries when they are no longer around to physically care for them.

While creating a trust isn’t for everyone, it is a valuable part of an estate plan for many, providing an additional layer of protection for your legacy, and the future security of your loved ones. The flexibility, problem-solving, and variety that a trust provides makes it an attractive option for those seeking a well-rounded estate plan.

Educating yourself on trusts is only the first step. When it is time to create your trust, working with an experienced estate planning attorney will ensure that your trust is established and funded properly. Contact usvia the brief form below to get started today, or learn more about protecting your assets by signing up for Miller Estate and Elder Law’s FREE estate planning workshop.

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The Difference Between Wills and Trusts

The Difference Between Wills and Trusts

Establishing an estate plan that clearly lays out your instructions for asset distribution is one of the greatest gifts you can give to the people you care about. Two of the most important ingredients to ensure your assets and loved ones are protected are wills and trusts. These legal instruments are often confused with one another, making it difficult to discern which option is right for you. What are wills and trusts? How are they different? When should you use wills vs trusts? 

What follows is answers to these questions (and more), to help you make the best decisions for your family, and your legacy.

What are Wills and Trusts?

Wills and trusts both outline instructions for how you want your assets distributed, so you’ll see some overlap in what each is capable of doing, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. One of the major differences is when and how each becomes effective.


A will is considered a “simple” document, providing instructions for how you’d like your assets to be distributed. In your will, you’ll name an executor who will be responsible for distributing your assets per your wishes. Additionally, a will allows you to name a guardian for minor children and pets, forgive debts owed to you, and provide any additional instructions for such matters as funeral arrangements, and how taxes should be paid.


A trust is a bit more complicated than a will, establishing a separate legal entity that holds legal title to your assets, and naming a trustee to manage and distribute those assets on your behalf, should you become incapacitated or pass away.

While there are many different types of trusts, they can all be classified in one of two ways:

  • Revocable (Living) Trust: This document allows the trustor to create the trust, retitle assets to the trust, assign a trustee, and make alterations, amendments, or terminations while they are living. This type of trust allows you to make an impact while you’re still alive, while giving you the flexibility to easily make amendments as life circumstances change.

  • Irrevocable Trust: This type of trust also assumes asset ownership, but cannot be altered, amended, or terminated by a trustor without the permission of his or her beneficiaries. While more restrictive than revocable trusts, this type of trust offers tax benefits that a revocable trust does not. 

Will vs Trust: What’s the Difference?

Both wills and trusts will help you handle your estate planning affairs, but there are some key differences that may help you decide whether your unique situation requires one or the other—or even both—options.

  • Effective Date

As aforementioned, one of the key differentiators of wills and trusts is when they go into effect: a will goes into effect upon death, while a trust becomes effective immediately upon funding and signing it. 

  • Privacy and Probate

All wills must undergo an often-arduous, time-consuming, and expensive probate process, which becomes public record and is accessible to anyone. Trusts, on the other hand, are not subject to probate and remain private. This can make trusts an attractive option for those seeking a faster and more private estate administration process for their beneficiaries…and one that is protected from the challenges often presented in probate court.

  • Property Coverage

A will covers any property solely owned by the grantor at the time of death, but does not cover property held by a trust, or any jointly owned property. A trust will only protect the property that has been transferred to it. Anything outside the trust may be subjected to probate.

  • Cost, Complexity and Maintenance

Wills created by an estate planning attorney often contain more complex terminologies, but a will can be extremely simple, with some states even allowing handwritten wills. This simplicity keeps the cost of creating a will at a minimum and, since wills are typically only revised for major life events, maintenance costs are also low.

Since trusts require you to fund them by transferring title to your assets, they can be more complex, and it is highly recommended you work with a trust attorney to ensure your trust is fully funded, supported by proper documentation, and kept up-to-date as you acquire new assets, and as life changes. This continuous maintenance can add additional costs, but ensures you’ve got 100% of your bases covered.

Will vs Trust: Which one is right for me?

The first step in answering this question is to assess your situation, needs, and goals. Things like your age, wealth, marital status, minor children, special needs, and unique requests play a pivotal role in making this decision. Most people need a will, but a trust is not vital for everyone. Enlisting the help of an estate planning and trust attorney is always the best option to find the estate planning solutions that best suit your needs. Contact Miller Estate and Elder Law to begin your custom-tailored estate plan, or register for our next FREE estate planning workshop today to learn more about estate planning and asset protection.

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Probate Property: Which Assets Must Go to Probate Court?

Probate Property: Which Assets Must Go to Probate Court?

You’ve probably heard horror stories about the nightmare that is probate court. Undoubtedly, friends and neighbors have had to undergo the probate process…and chances are, they don’t have many good things to say about it.

Let us first say, probate isn’t quite as bad as it gets made out to be (though it certainly CAN be for the ill-prepared). Probate is the legal process that authenticates your will in order to properly facilitate the allocation of your assets to your beneficiaries. Upon death, the estate administration process begins, drawing together all the necessary documentation for the distribution and management of your assets, which the probate court then oversees. The most common document utilized is a will.

If an individual passes away without a will—also known as dying ‘intestate’—the estate administration process becomes much more complicated, and a time-consuming, costly probate process is almost inevitable.

Being proactive and drafting a will, as well as understanding which assets must go through probate, can make the probate process much easier, or bypass it altogether.

Which Assets Need to Be Probated?

Whether or not your assets end up in probate is dependent upon how your estate plan is set up. Essentially, any property that does not have a designated beneficiary, or is not set up to pass by operation of law, will inevitably be deemed probate property, and settled in probate court. Some examples of circumstances that lead to probate include:

  • When an individual dies without a will. Without a will present, the estate becomes dependent upon the laws of intestacy, leaving the probate court to adjudicate who will inherit the deceased’s assets.
  • When a person passes away as the single-named owner of titled assets. These assets include items like real estate, investment and bank accounts, vehicles, personal property, collectibles, safety deposit box contents, and other solely titled assets of the deceased.
  • When property does not have a title. If the deceased does not have the compulsory paperwork for assets in their ownership, and the property isn’t clearly named in the will with the deceased’s wishes, the assets become probate property.
  • When the beneficiary predeceases the testator. If your will hasn’t been updated before your named beneficiary passes away, their inheritance will be settled in probate.

Actions You Can Take Now To Avoid Your Assets Being Probated in the Future

As you can see, there are many factors that could land your estate in probate court; however, there are some things you can do now to make a more ironclad estate plan that is specifically designed to keep your assets out of probate, or at least simplify the probate process.

  • Ensure your will is detailed. While having a will isn’t enough to avoid probate (all wills must go through probate), when a will clearly defines your wishes, it simplifies the process, and makes authorization to distribute your property much less laborious.
  • Establish a living trust. A living trust prevents probate because the trust takes ownership of the assets placed within it and, upon your passing, a named trustee will distribute your estate as stipulated in the trust – without the need/input of the probate court.
  • Title property jointly. Property owned in joint ownership with right of survivorship automatically passes the property to the surviving owner(s), without probate.
  • Name a beneficiary. Assets that have a named beneficiary—for example, your retirement plan, life insurance policy, or transfer-on-death or payable-on-death bank accounts—escape probate by sending items directly to beneficiaries.
  • Give assets away while you’re still alive. Although this is a no-brainer, it deserves an honorable mention. Simply put, if the property is no longer owned by you at the time of death, it doesn’t go to probate. This, however, can cause issues with qualifying for Medicaid if long-term care is needed, so we encourage you to speak with an elder law attorney before giving away money or assets.

At Miller Estate and Elder Law, we pride ourselves on providing clients with a high level of attention to detail that takes all of the guesswork out of estate planning. We create tailored solutions that are based on your specific goals and objectives. Our educational resources and unique programs keep you and your estate plan up-to-date, giving you the confidence needed to be secure in knowing your estate is in good hands.

Contact us today, register for a free workshop, or browse our resources, which address many common questions. With our guidance, you’ll gain peace of mind knowing your estate will be ready for smooth sailing after you’re gone.

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