Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Will a Trust Really Fail for Lack of Funding?*

In some jurisdictions, lack of any trust corpus (even just a couple of dollars, or some personal property) will cause the trust to be treated as if it were never created to begin with, and attempts to place assets into such a trust in the future cannot salvage or resurrect the defunct trust.  Most trusts that are created have some modicum of a trust corpus to prevent such a disaster.  Therefore, having anything in the trust will prevent it from failing, right???  That depends on your definition of "fail."  In order to answer the question, we must first talk about how funding works in relationship to a trust.

How does a trust work?  Think of a trust as a bucket, or a treasure chest.  One writes instructions on the outside of the bucket about what one wants done with the things that are in the bucket.  The trustmaker then takes the "bucket" and puts it into the hands of someone the trustmaker can rely on--that's the trustee.  The trustee's job is to follow the trustmaker's instructions with regard to the things that are in the bucket.

What will happen if the bucket is empty when the trustee attempts to follow the trustmaker's instructions after the trustmaker has died?  The trustee only has authority over what is in the trust, so if there is nothing in the trust, then there is nothing for the trustee to do.  (And as mentioned previously, if there is really nothing in the trust, then it may be void, depending on the controlling state law.)

Anything left outside the trust is outside of the trustee's control.  That means that the trustmaker's directions will not be followed with regard to those assets that are out of the trust.  Some assets may find their way back into the trust through a pour-over will, but typically this requires the expense, delay and publicity of probate to do so.

The process we call "funding" is the process of titling assets so that they are in the trust "bucket"--controlled by the trustee.  These assets will be controlled by the trustmaker's directions without the need for probate.

So, back to our question:  having anything in the trust will prevent it from failing, right?  If the measure of success is mere legal sufficiency, then that is correct.  However, the true measure of a trust's success is not whether it is "legally sufficient," but whether the trust meets the client's goals.

One common motivation many have for seeking out an attorney to create a trust is so that their family will be able to avoid the cost, delay, and publicity of probate on their death.  Failure to fully and properly fund a trust means that the client's directions will not be followed with regard to those assets not in the trust, or at least that probate will not be avoided.

If a trust fails to do what the client wanted (transfer assets by specific instructions contained in the trust, or avoid probate, for example), then it has failed whether the trust is legally sufficient or not.

Hopefully, when you buys a gallon of milk at the grocery store, it comes in a container.  But what if you pay for a gallon of milk and only get an empty or half-full container?  You would be upset, and rightly so.  However, people buy empty (or, at least, not full) trust buckets frequently, and do not realize the reduced value they are receiving.

Make sure you are getting full value for your estate plan by working with an attorney who will ensure that the trust bucket is full when created, and has a formal process in place to make sure that it stays that way.

*Adapted from the Planning Partners Press.

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