CategoryTrusts

What Is a Trustee Supposed to Do?

This summer has brought an increase in contested probate matters – that is, family and/or friends not getting along, or people taking advantage of others based on their position of power in someone’s estate planning documents. In many of the cases, it was actual or alleged breach of duties by a person appointed as Trustee.

I will not get into the gory details of the cases we’ve had this summer (several of which are still pending), but I do think they emphasize one thing – we all should know who/what a Trustee is, what they are required to do, and what they can be liable for. Of course, I am not going to be able to go into too much detail in this post . . . well, I could, but it would put you to sleep, if you are not asleep already 😉

In short, a Trustee owns and manages property for the benefit of someone else. Most commonly, this is someone named to administer and distribute your revocable living trust during a period of your incapacity or after you pass away. It is not like managing your own finances. A Trustee has the power and the obligation to manage someone else’s (your) assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries named in the trust. It is not a role to take lightly.

As far as the powers the Trustee has, basically they can do anything you can do. Sell, buy, transfer, get loans, make loans, and, if the your trust specifically gives them the power, they can handle your business, specially regulated assets (e.g. firearms), and many other things.

But, as they say, with great power, comes great responsibility. The Trustee has several duties and obligations, all of which fall under the general heading of “fiduciary duties” – that is, duties that are owed to others based on the Trustee’s relation to them as Trustee. A short and non-exhaustive list of Trustee duties are:

  • Marshalling assets: gathering all of your assets together
  • Acquire a tax ID number, if the trust does not already have one
  • Inventory and appraise (formally or informally) trust asset
  •  Send legally required notices to trust beneficiaries within a certain timeframe
  • Keep the trust beneficiaries informed of trust assets
  • Invest trust assets as a “prudent person” would
  • Keep “accountings” (e.g. values, income and expenses) of trust assets and provide reports to beneficiaries no less than annually
  • Prepare and file trust tax returns (or, preferably, work with a qualified CPA to prepare and file them)
  • Make distributions as required in the Trustee agreement
  • When the trust is fully administered, close the trust

As you can see, there is a lot for a Trustee to do and to do correctly. The top two recommendations I make to Trustees are: (1) keep meticulous records on everything you do and why you did it, and (2) enlist the assistance of professionals, such as an Attorney, Financial Advisor, and CPA, to make sure you are properly administering the trust and the assets owned by it.

When choosing a Trustee, you should choose someone you trust and who is either capable of handling the above items on his/her own, or is willing to work with professionals who can guide him/her through the process. Given what is involved, it is not uncommon for families to choose a professional Trustee, such as a bank or trust company.

In closing, I would recommend that you bookmark this post.  Or, better yet, keep it yourself and share it to anyone who is named as a Trustee in your plan or who may be named in someone else’s plan (friend or family member).  It will be a good starting point if you (or they) are called upon to act as Trustee.

And remember, if you ever have a questions, please contact me.

The Importance of Planning Communication

grandmaI have had a lot of conversations recently centered around communication and financial information.  Each had its own twist, the context rarely being the same.  But, the two recurring themes were: (1) lack of organization and communication about your financial situations can cause a lot of frustration and expense if you are disabled or pass away, and (2) the process of creating and properly funding a living trust can help keep #1 from happening. I know it is not necessarily fun or exciting to talk about. Be that as it may, it can make a HUGE difference.

Here is one of the “bad” examples.  The person had a will-based estate plan that was put in place some time ago.  It will not shock you to know that a lot changed over the years.  In addition to not keeping the estate plan updated, the person never shared anything about the person’s financial situation (what they had, where it was, etc.).  I am now working with their family to try and sort everything out.  It is proving quite difficult.  Each financial institution seems to have different requirements for finding out information about accounts, and quite honestly, the family does not even know where to look.  It has led to a lot of frustration on their end and much higher legal fees as we help walk them through it and get the information they need.

On the flip side are a couple of clients who passed away in 2014.  Both had a trust-based plan that was fully funded.  If you are curious about what I mean by “fully funded”, you can read a blog post of mine on the topic by clicking here.  Because I work with clients to make sure their trust is fully funded, including putting together a spreadsheet of their assets, there is a list of the “what” and “where”.  I also tend to find that by talking through the financial side of things with clients, they seem to be more willing to talk about it with those they have trusted with handling their financial affairs during their incapacity or after their passing.  In both of these cases, those people who were called upon to act as successor Trustees were able to quickly get a handle of the financial side of things which, in turn, led to a quick, smooth, and less costly transition.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are always exceptions to these examples.  Having a will-based plan does not mean that administering your estate will be a frustrating and costly experience.  And likewise, just having a trust does not guarantee that everything will be smooth sailing.  But, I have generally found the exceptions to be few and far between.  Whether a will-based plan or a trust-based plan, the important part is to make sure to keep track of your financial affairs and communicate with those you choose to help with your estate.  A well-qualified financial advisor can be a big help with this process too, so do not overlook them.

As you know, I welcome questions, comments, and stories about the topic, so please let me know if you have any.

ABLE Accounts and Michigan Special Needs Planning

In the flurry of new laws passed at the end of 2013, there was a law that provides additional options for individuals with special needs or disabilities.  The law is called the ABLE Act – the “Achieving a Better Life Experience” Act. It had overwhelming support from all political parties, something that is rare these days. As you might expect, I am not able to cover all the details one blog post, especially when much of the “nuts and bolts” of how ABLE accounts will work has yet to be figured out through the regulatory process.  So, I will attempt to summarize the act and some important considerations.

10674802805_a9b0103bf6_mThe ABLE Act recognizes that there are additional financial strains faced by individuals with disabilities and their families, including those in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area.  In short, the ABLE Act allows for individuals to utilize a tax-free, state-based private savings account, referred to as an ABLE account, for the care of people with disabilities. This ABLE account can be used to supplement government benefits for “qualified disability expenses” such as medical and dental care, education, employment training, housing, and transportation, while not disqualifying a disabled individual from governmental benefits. As a result of the ABLE Act, eligible individuals and families are now allowed to establish ABLE savings accounts that will not affect their eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and other public benefits.

The ABLE Act states that eligibility will be limited to those individuals with “significant disabilities” with an age of onset of disability before turning 26 years of age. It is important to note that the person does not have to be under 26 years of age, just that the onset of the disability was before turning 26 years of age. Additionally, there are dollar limits on the amount that can be contributed to an ABLE account, both on an annual basis and as a total dollar amount in the account.  The annual contribution limit is $14,000 and the overall amount allowed in the account is $100,000.  To exceed either limit would disqualify the account as an ABLE account, a potentially disastrous result.

Keep in mind, this is not something you can set up immediately. Congress put the general structure in place and it was signed in to law, however regulations must be established before states can begin to set up procedures for managing ABLE accounts. It will likely be late this year before you can set up an ABLE account.

Keep in mind, an ABLE account is not a one size fits all solution for everyone.  An ABLE account is not without its drawbacks.  One of the biggest drawbacks of an ABLE account is that any money remaining in the account upon the passing of the ABLE account holder must be used first to pay back the State for care provided to the account holder.  Many of the planning options that are already available for someone with different abilities continue to provide a better approach for many families.  For example, a special needs trust will likely continue to be the best option for many Grand Rapids, MI area individuals and families.  Why?  For a few main reasons:

  • There is no maximum annual contribution amount
  • There is no maximum allowed amount
  • There is much more flexibility in how the assets are invested
  • You maintain more control over how the assets are used
  • Assets in a special needs trust are not subject to the Medicaid and/or SSI payback to which an ABLE account is subject.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of that last point.  If you, as a family member or friend put money into an ABLE account for someone, that money will be subject to Medicaid and/or SSI claims upon the ABLE account holder’s passing.   Yet, if you established a special needs trust (or contributed to one that was already established), no such “payback” is required and you can specify what happens with the remaining trust assets when the beneficiary passes away.  In short, you have more control.

All that said, an ABLE account is another “tool” in the planning “toolbox” and will help some families and individuals who may otherwise be disqualified from government benefits.

How to Transfer a Credit Union Account to Your Trust

As noted in this slightly dated CNN Money article, the number of credit union accounts is growing.   The cause, according to the article, is that “a growing number of consumers grew fed up with the fees at the nation’s biggest banks and took their money elsewhere.”  I’ve noticed in many of my conversations that a large driver is better customer service (actual or perceived) or the credit union has a relationship with the person’s employer.  And, not surprisingly, I find that many (if not most) of my client families have one or more credit union accounts.  I’m a huge fan of great service, so I love to see my client families getting great service.  But, as a dedicated Grand Rapids, Mi estate planning attorney I’m troubled to find out that many of them are receiving bad advice about how to properly coordinate their credit union accounts with their living trust estate plan.

As with most things in life, the “best” way to handle something is based on each family – your goals, values, and how they want their trust to work.  And generally speaking we recommend that our client families have their trust own their bank and credit union accounts.  Up until a couple of years ago, clients were able to just change the owner of the account with new signature cards, whether it was a bank or credit union account.  About two years ago I started getting client calls saying that their credit union recommended against changing the ownership of the account.

Why?  Well, for whatever reason the credit unions started requiring you open a new account to change ownership (e.g. you could not change the owner on an existing account).   I honestly don’t know if that is an internal policy issue at each credit union or if it was an “edict” from the government regulators, so please know that I’m not bashing credit unions … I’m not.  And this may not be the case at all credit unions, but I have not had an exception to this rule for any of my client families over the past couple of years, so it seems to be a common practice.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the policy, what I really find troubling is that almost every one of our client families was told, “you don’t want to change the owner because that requires opening a new account, changing all your auto-deposits and auto-deductions, and then closing out your old account.  You can just name your trust as beneficiary of your account – that’s the same thing.”  Please don’t misunderstand me – I understand the practical *pain in the butt* it is to change all those automatic things, believe me.  But, the fact is that naming a beneficiary is not the same thing as having your trust as the owner.

As I wrote in this previous blog post, trusts are an incredible incapacity planning tool.   But, it’s only a great incapacity planning tool for those things that it owns.  If it’s not in the name of your trust, your trustee won’t have legal authority to handle or take care of it during your incapacity.  So, in the above example, if your trust is just a beneficiary of your credit union account, your trustee will not be able to access it during your incapacity.  But if it is “owned” by your trust, your trustee can access it to continue to pay bills, take care of you, and take care of your children or others who you help support.

So, choose what is best for your family after talking it through with your estate planning attorney, and remember the difference between owning and being a beneficiary.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and charitable planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for “stuff” – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate, charitable, and asset protection planning for all generations (“young” and “experienced”), the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses, and pet planning.  He enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients centered on their family’s values, insights, stories and experiences.

Should I Put My Car In My Trust?

This is the most common questions I’m asked as a Grand Rapids, Mi will and trust lawyer.  And the short answer is: usually not, but it depends.  You see, Michigan actually has a rather simple post-death automobile transfer procedure.  It isn’t the best for all situations, but it works well in many situations.  There are requirements for using the procedure.  You can find out more about the procedure and its requirements by reading this previous blog post.

Another reason for not putting your automobile into your living trust is because of a common public misperception of people who have trust . . . many people think families with trusts are “rich.”  As I’ve previously written here and here, that is certainly not the case.  Trusts have many benefits to families from all walks of life, including the heart and soul of our fine country – the middle class.  If your car or truck is registered in the name of your trust and you cause an accident, the injured party may think you are “rich” and take actions they may otherwise not think of taking, hoping to dig into your deep pockets.

All that said, there are occasions when I do recommend that my client families transfer ownership of their automobiles to their trust.  The first is when the value of their automobiles exceeds the dollar value in the post-death procedure mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.  And the second is when one or more of their automobiles is a collector car.  And, in fact, usually if they fall into the second category they almost always fall into the first category.

As with all situations involving families and the law, every situation is unique.  So, make sure to give us a call if you have questions, need to review your estate plan, or your family needs a caring plan in place!

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and charitable planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for “stuff” – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate, charitable, and asset protection planning for all generations (“young” and “experienced”), the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses, and pet planning.  He enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients centered on their family’s values, insights, stories and experiences.

Why Do I Need a Michigan Gun Trust

As a Michigan gun trust lawyer, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in the number of calls we’re receiving asking about setting up a gun trust.  It’s really not a surprise given the current state of the “gun control debate” after the horrible tragedy in Newtown, CT.  It seems that the most common question I’m asked is, “why do I even need a gun trust?”  Well, the short answer is that you don’t need a gun trust to own a firearm, whether regulated by the National Firearms Act (NFA) or not.  But, with very few exceptions, a Michigan gun trust is the best way for many Michigan residents to own their guns, especial NFA items (for example, suppressors / silencers).

Why is that?  The reasons vary based on your specific circumstances.  This previous blog post shares many of the reasons a Michigan gun trust is a great way to own, protect, and ultimately transfer a NFA regulated firearm or item in Michigan.  What many Michigan firearms owners don’t realize is that a Michigan gun trust can be a MUCH better way of owning their non-NFA firearms . . . especially if you are a Michigan resident with a firearm “collection.”  Generally speaking, we consider a “collection” to include total value of firearms of $10,000 or more.

Why would you do that when Michigan law already provides a way to transfer non-NFA regulated firearms if something happens to you?  The key lies in the fact that a well-drafted Michigan gun trust is drafted with the purpose of acquiring, holding, and eventually distributing firearms, ammunition, and accessories.  What does that mean for you?  Well, let’s think about the current “gun control debate” going on nationally and in many states.  As you probably know there is “gun control” legislation going through Congress right now.  The goal of much of the proposed legislation is to ban a wide variety of semi-automatic firearms as well as implement “universal” background checks.  And some of the legislators have made no secret of their wish to confiscate all firearms and accessories, and if they can’t do that, to at least prohibit the transfer of any “grandfathered” weapons and require any such weapons to be surrendered to the state at the current owner’s death.  My hope is that none of these laws are passed, but even so, it gives you insight into what they are really thinking about controlling your right to “keep and bear arms.”

Although firearms laws and trust law is still developing, it can be a good idea to transfer non-regulated weapons into a trust prior to the enactment of any such legislation (whether the legislation comes now or sometime in the future). This may avoid a scenario in which your family is forced to surrender your prized collection after you are gone.  Proper estate planning will help create and share your legacy with your family and loved ones.  It’s no different with your firearms – a properly drafted gun trust can help you leave a legacy with your firearms and plan for their use for generations to come.

Call at (616) 827-7596 to start creating your gun trust today!

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and gun trust attorney who helps families and firearm owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for  firearm owners (both NFA regulated and non-NFA regulated), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.

Transferring EE Savings Bonds to Your Living Trust

Although their popularity seems to have gone by the wayside, it seems like we all have them or we know someone who does – U.S. Savings Bonds.  According to this site, 14.9% of families have savings bonds, which makes up 0.4% of families’ assets.  And according to this site, the average American household has over $1,800 in U.S. Savings Bonds.  So you can see that although they are not a large part of the overal “net worth” of the average American family, they are widely owned.

As a Grand Rapids, Mi wills and trusts attorney, I’ve had a several families ask me how to transfer their U.S. Savings Bonds into their living trust.  This will help ensure that they can be properly handled if you become incapacitated or pass away.  The great news is that it’s not very difficult to transfer U.S. Savings Bonds to your living trust.

First, a technical matter.  We don’t “transfer” the U.S. Savings Bonds to our trust . . . we have them “reissued” to properly register them to our trust.  To do so, start by going to this U.S. Treasury site.  From there you can download and fill out Form PDF 1851, which is specifically for reissuing the bonds in the name of a personal trust.  The form has surprisingly good instructions and will guide you through properly completing the form and returning it to the U.S Treasury Department.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and charitable planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for “stuff” – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate, charitable, and asset protection planning for all generations (“young” and “experienced”), the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses, and pet planning.  He enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients centered on their families values, insights, stories and experiences.

IMPORTANT: Michael is licensed to practice law in the State of Michigan and have offices in Kent County. I am ethically required to state that the above information does not create an attorney/client relationship. These posts should be considered general legal education and are intended to provide general information the topic discussed. Frequently, differing facts about the particular individual or family, if known, could significantly change the recommendations made in the blog post. Information provided on this site should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney that practices in the subject area in your state. The law changes frequently and varies from state to state.

Wills vs. Trusts – The Battle Continues

In a previous post we discussed many of the differences between wills and trusts. That discussion was from more of a “technical” standpoint, which can still leave a lot of questions. And those questions are typically the practical questions, such as “I have a couple of retirement accounts . . . would a will or trust be better for me?”

Generally speaking, here is a brief comparison of wills vs trusts relating to some practical considerations:

Wills tend to be sufficient in situations such as: simple and outright distribution of assets when privacy is not important.

Trusts tend to be better for handling the following: life insurance policies, qualified retirement plans (IRA, Roth IRA, 401k, 403b, etc.), somewhat more involved distribution of assets, maintaining privacy, possible or probably mental disability, desire to make it as easy as possible for family and loved ones, out-of-state real estate, out-of-state trustees (and beneficiaries), tax planning, protection of inheritance for spouse, children and grandchildren (or other loved ones), second marriages, and loved ones with special needs.

Keep in mind that there is no “one size fits all” answer to estate planning questions because each individual and each family is unique. Each estate plan should be too! Beware of the standard form document and a “telling you” versus “listening, learning and sharing with you” approach.

Call us at 616-827-7596, if you have questions or want to make sure your family’s plan is specific to who you are and what’s important to you.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™. This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you. He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning. He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.

Estate Planning Is For Everyone . . . Including You!

Many Grand Rapids families and families throughout Michigan have the misperception that estate planning is simply preparing for one’s death and is only necessary for the “wealthy.”  The truth is that estate planning is as much about passing values to loved ones as it is about passing material possessions.

So, it should come as no surprise that a February 16, 2012 Forbes article describes estate planning as “the most important love letters you’ll ever write,” encouraging readers to “find inspiration in knowing that you’re caring for the people and causes you love, even if you’re not here anymore.”

The Forbes article correctly concludes that estate planning is for every adult American (including us right here in Grand Rapids, Mi), and that everyone should successfully complete “thoughtfully prepared estate planning documents.” The complexity of those documents may change for more affluent people, but the need to care for loved ones and causes exists for everyone. And working with a qualified Grand Rapids, Mi wills and trusts attorney helps enlighten people as to all they can accomplish through the estate planning process.

I recommend you read the full article, titled The Most Important Love Letters You’ll Ever Write, by clicking here.

And you can read some of my blog posts on similar topics by clicking the links below:

Beware the Double Tragedy in Estate Planning

Family Stories as a Priceless Treasure

Non-Tax Reasons for Estate Planning

Michigan Legacy Planning . . . Not Your Regular Estate Plan

Life Is More Than Money: Leaving a Lasting Legacy

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for  the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.

Using Trust Protectors to Maximize Estate Plan Flexibility

I’m the type of person who genuinely believes anything can be done.  And as a Grand Rapids, MI estate planning attorney I bring that same attitude to helping craft caring estate plans for wonderful West Michigan families.  How?  Flexibility.  That’s right – not the standard form document that seems to try and wedge your family into whatever box is the “standard,” but rather a plan that let’s you share your goals, aspirations, hopes, values, experiences and stories, and makes it a reality.  One of the biggest “wishes” is that a plan will be flexible enough to handle changed circumstances throughout life.  One incredibly powerful tool used to accomplish this is a trust protector.

Trust protectors (aka Trust Advisors) have long been used in British Commonwealth countries, originating with offshore asset protection trusts. With these trusts, their role was limited mostly to overseeing the foreign trustee and to make sure the trust maker’s intent was fulfilled.

Today, trust protectors are increasingly being used with trusts that are located here in Michigan. And, while their main job is still to oversee the trustee and make sure your intentions are followed after unforeseen changes in the law and other matters, they can be given additional duties that will provide you and your beneficiaries with added flexibility, security and peace of mind.

What is a Trust Protector?
A trust protector is someone you name in your trust agreement to oversee your trustee and make sure your trust carries on in the way you intended. This should be a trusted friend or advisor, someone who knows and understands your motives, family values and desires when you created your trust. In the case of a trust that will last many years, like a multi-generational trust, a trust protector is often an institution rather than a specific person.

A trust protector can begin to act immediately (for example, if your trust is irrevocable), or can take an active role only under certain circumstances (for example, at your incapacity or death). Think of your trust protector as your substitute, someone who can speak for you if there is uncertainty in interpreting your trust’s instructions, or the law changes and that change affects your trust. Your trust protector also can provide guidance for the trustee and protect your beneficiaries from a trustee that is not meeting its responsibilities, is overreaching, or is unresponsive.

How Much Power Should You Give Your Trust Protector?
The trust protector’s duties and powers are defined in the trust document, and can range from extremely limited to extremely broad. How much power you give your trust protector is completely up to you. Traditionally, the trust protector’s role has been a defensive one: to ensure that the trustee carries out the trustmaker’s wishes and to protect the beneficiaries from an under-performing or over-reaching trustee. But if you give your trust protector more power, the role can become a proactive one, allowing your trust protector to act before wrongs occur.

Some of the duties and powers you can give your trust protector include:

Oversee, Remove and Replace the Trustee
Your trust protector can oversee your trustee, providing guidance in interpreting your trust’s instructions and holding the trustee accountable. You can also give your trust protector the power to remove and replace the trustee. This authority can be restrictive, limited to specific bad behavior by the trustee that can include being unresponsive to the beneficiaries, not providing acceptable record-keeping, reporting and tax filings, or charging too much for services. The authority can also be extensive, allowing the trust protector to remove and replace the trustee for no specific reason (without cause). Usually potential replacements (successor trustees) are named in the trust agreement, but it may also be possible for the trust protector to select a successor trustee.

Just having these oversight provisions in place is often enough to keep a trustee in line. And if it does become necessary to remove a trustee, it is much easier for the trust protector to do this (because he or she already has the authority) than for the beneficiaries to reach an agreement and ask for court removal, which is a time-consuming, expensive and unpleasant procedure.

You can also allow your trust protector to control spending by the trustee, and even limit the trustee’s compensation, which can go a long way toward preventing disputes.

Resolve Disputes
You can also make your trust protector the mediator if disputes should arise between co-trustees, between the trustee and a beneficiary, or even among beneficiaries. Having the trust protector as the final arbiter in disputes over interpreting the provisions of the trust document can sometimes avoid costly and unpleasant trust litigation.

You could even give your trust protector the ability to sue or defend lawsuits involving the trust assets.

Modify Your Estate Plan
You may also want to allow your trust protector to actually make some changes to your trust. For example, you could allow your trust protector to change the situs (location in which the trust is regulated) to a state that has more favorable asset protection or income tax laws, should the need arise.

You could also give your trust protector the power to amend or revoke the trust agreement, in its entirety or in part; to add or delete specific beneficiaries or classes of beneficiaries; or to change the terms of distributions to beneficiaries. These powers may be extremely beneficial to the trust’s ability to follow your intentions as tax laws change, as well as to protect the assets from potential predators and creditors.

Delegate Responsibilities among Advisors
Traditionally, and still with many trusts, the trustee handles everything – recordkeeping, tax returns, distributions, investing, etc. But over time, people have discovered that it is beneficial to allocate some of this responsibility to different parties that have different strengths. 

Consider giving your trust protector the ability to appoint, oversee and substitute other professionals. For example, the management of your trust could be divided like this:

  • An Administrative Trustee maintains trust records, accounts, and tax returns. If the trust is governed by laws in a different state (often for tax or asset protection reasons), the administrator will usually be a local institution or professional.
  • A Distribution Trustee or Adviser that has discretion and can make or withhold distributions from the trust to the beneficiaries. Typically this will be an objective third party, which insulates the trustee from pressure and liability associated with the power to distribute trust assets. This is especially important if a beneficiary’s creditor tries to force distributions from the trust.
  • An Investment Trustee or Adviser oversees or directs trust investments, and may be granted specific powers, including: to hold, maintain or cancel life insurance; to direct the sale or exchange of property; and to open, manage and close accounts. A general trustee is held to the prudent investment standard because of its fiduciary duty and, as a result, has restrictions on the investments it can make. Having an investment advisor that is not bound by the prudent investor rule or held to the same standard will provide more flexibility in investments.
  • The “General” Trustee handles everything that is not delegated.

Who Should Serve as Trust Protector?
Ideally, your trust protector should be someone who knows you, your motives, desires, and intentions when you established your trust. It cannot be you or a family member who is a beneficiary of your trust because of possible tax complications. An unrelated third party – a family friend, an advisor, the attorney who drafted your trust, or your family CPA – is often the best choice. They obviously must be willing to serve in this capacity, and your trust agreement should specify if they are to be paid for their services.

Who Should Have the Power to Remove or Replace the Trust Protector?
This probably should not be you, unless the replacement is explicitly limited in the document to someone who is not related or subordinate to you. You could possibly give this power to the beneficiaries or an unrelated third party. Leaving this decision to the courts would be time-consuming and costly.

If your plan has asset protection elements, no beneficiary should have the power to remove or replace the trust protector. Doing so could cause your trust to be under the control of a beneficiary and that could put the entire asset protection part of your plan in jeopardy.

Conclusion
The use of trust protectors is an excellent way to provide added flexibility, security and peace of mind in trust planning, especially since you can control how much power the trust protector is given. If you would like to discuss adding a trust protector to your estate planning, please call our office. We are ready to help.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for  the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.

Understanding How Trusts Work

In this week’s post, I thought we would cover something that is important to many Americans yet is sometimes misunderstood – trusts. In the right circumstances, trusts can provide significant advantages to those who utilize them, particularly in protecting trust assets from the creditors of beneficiaries.

Admittedly this can be a complex topic, but you see its implications in the headlines every day. So, let’s try  to simplify the subject and explain the general protection trusts provide for their creator (the “trust maker”) as well as the trust beneficiaries. Given the numerous types of trusts, only look at the most common varieties. I encourage you to seek the counsel of a Michigan attorney who focuses on estate planning to help you apply these concepts to your specific situation, or if you have questions about specific types of trusts.

Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts
There are two basic types of trusts: revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. Perhaps the most common type of trust is revocable trusts (aka revocable living trusts, inter vivos trusts or living trusts). As their name implies, revocable trusts are fully revocable at the request of the trust maker. Thus, assets transferred (or “funded”) to a revocable trust remain within the control of the trust maker; the trust maker (or trust makers if it is a joint revocable trust) can simply revoke the trust and have the assets returned. Alternatively, irrevocable trusts, as their name implies, are not revocable by the trust maker(s).

Revocable Living Trusts
As is discussed more below, revocable trusts do not provide asset protection for the trust maker(s). However, revocable trusts can be advantageous to the extent the trust maker(s) transfer property to the trust during lifetime.   Revocable trusts can be excellent vehicles for disability planning, privacy, and probate avoidance. However, a revocable trust controls only that property affirmatively transferred to the trust. Absent such transfer, a revocable trust may not control disposition of property as the trust maker intends. Also, with revocable trusts and wills, it is important to coordinate property passing according to contract (for example, by beneficiary designation for retirement plans and life insurance).

Asset Protection for the Trust Maker
The goal of asset protection planning is to insulate assets that would otherwise be subject to the claims of creditors. Typically, a creditor can reach any assets owned by a debtor. Conversely, a creditor cannot reach assets not owned by the debtor. This is where trusts come into play.  The right types of trusts can insulate assets from creditors because the trust owns the assets, not the debtor.

As a general rule, if a trust maker creates an irrevocable trust and is a beneficiary of the trust, assets transferred to the trust are not protected from the trust maker’s creditors. This general rule applies whether or not the transfer was done to defraud an existing creditor or creditors.

Until fairly recently, the only way to remain a beneficiary of a trust and get protection against creditors for the trust assets was to establish the trust outside the United States in a favorable jurisdiction. As you might imagine, this can be an expensive proposition.

However, the laws of a handful of states (including Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Utah) now permit what are commonly known as domestic asset protection trusts. Under the laws of these few states, a trust maker can transfer assets to an irrevocable trust and the trust maker can be a trust beneficiary, yet trust assets can be protected from the trust maker’s creditors to the extent distributions can only be made within the discretion of an independent trustee. Note that this will not work when the transfer was done to defraud or hinder a creditor or creditors. In that case, the trust will not protect the assets from those creditors.  Although Michigan does not currently have a domestic asset protection trust law, I am hopeful that we will in the near future (I happen to be on a committee working on drafting such a law).

Given this insulation, asset protection planning often involves transferring assets to one or more types of irrevocable trusts. As long as the transfer is not done to defraud creditors, the courts will typically respect the transfers and the trust assets can be protected from creditors.

Asset Protection for Trust Beneficiaries
A revocable trust provides no asset protection for the trust maker during his or her life. Upon the death of the trust maker, however, or upon the death of the first spouse to die if it is a joint trust, the trust becomes irrevocable as to the deceased trust maker’s property and can provide asset protection for the beneficiaries, with two important caveats.

First, the assets must remain in the trust to provide ongoing asset protection. In other words, once the trustee distributes the assets to a beneficiary, those assets are no longer protected and can be attached by that beneficiary’s creditors. If the beneficiary is married, the distributed assets may also be subject to the spouse’s creditor(s), or they may be available to the former spouse upon divorce.  Trusts for the lifetime of the beneficiaries provide prolonged asset protection for the trust assets. Lifetime trusts also permit your financial advisor to continue to invest the trust assets as you instruct, which can help ensure that trust returns are sufficient to meet your planning objectives.

The second caveat follows logically from the first: the more rights the beneficiary has with respect to compelling trust distributions, the less asset protection the trust provides. Generally, a creditor “steps into the shoes” of the debtor and can exercise any rights of the debtor. Thus, if a beneficiary has the right to demand a distribution from a trust, so too can a creditor compel a distribution from that trust.  The more rights a beneficiary has to compel distributions from a trust, the less protection that trust provides for that beneficiary.

So, where asset protection is a significant concern, it is important that the trust maker not give the beneficiary the right to automatic distributions. A creditor will simply salivate in anticipation of each distribution. Instead, consider discretionary distributions by an independent trustee.  Consider a professional fiduciary to make distributions from an asset protection trust. Trusts that give beneficiaries no rights to compel a distribution, but rather give complete discretion to an independent trustee, provide the highest degree of asset protection.

Lastly, with divorce rates at or exceeding 50% nationally, the likelihood of divorce is quite high. By keeping assets in trust, the trust maker can ensure that the trust assets do not go to a former son-in-law or daughter-in-law, or their bloodline.

Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts
With the exception of domestic asset protection trusts discussed above, a transfer to an irrevocable trust can protect the assets from creditors only if the trust maker is not a beneficiary of the trust. One of the most common types of irrevocable trust is the irrevocable life insurance trust, also known as a wealth replacement trust, and often referred to as an ILIT.

Under the laws of many states, creditors can access the cash value of life insurance. Reasonable minds differ on whether that is the case in Michigan (read about it here).  But even if state law protects the cash value from creditors, at death, the death proceeds of life insurance owned by you are includible in your gross estate for estate tax purposes. Insureds can avoid both of these adverse results by having an irrevocable life insurance trust own the insurance policy and also be its beneficiary. The dispositive provisions of this trust typically mirror the provisions of the trust maker’s revocable living trust or will. And while this trust is irrevocable, as with any irrevocable trust, the trust terms can grant an independent trust protector significant flexibility to modify the terms of the trust to account for unanticipated future developments.

If the trust maker is concerned about accessing the cash value of the insurance during lifetime, the trust can give the trustee the power to make loans to the trust maker during lifetime or the power to make distributions to the trust maker’s spouse during the spouse’s lifetime. Even with these provisions, the life insurance proceeds will not be included in the trust maker’s estate for estate tax purposes.

Irrevocable life insurance trusts can be individual trusts (which typically own an individual policy on the trust maker’s life) or they can be joint trusts created by a husband and wife (which typically own a survivorship policy on both lives).

Conclusion
You can protect your assets from creditors by placing them in a well-drafted trust, and you can protect your beneficiaries from claims of creditors and predators by keeping those assets in trust over the beneficiary’s lifetime. By working a caring attorney who focuses on estate planning, you can help ensure that your planning meets your unique goals and objectives.  Why not get started now?  Call us at 616-827-7596 to schedule your Peace of Mind Planning Session and put a caring plan in place for you family today!

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for  the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.

What is a Michigan Gun Trust?

As a Grand Rapids, MI estate and legacy planning attorney, I am always researching ways to better protect, preserve, and pass on my clients’ legacies in the way they want.  In some cases, this may mean protecting and preserving a prized firearm or a firearm collection.

Think about it for a moment . . . there are four million members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and an estimated 270+ million firearms in this country.  Many families also have guns and other weapons as heirlooms that they would like to keep in the family and pass down from generation to generation.  Although some may think their estate plan (or lack thereof) will “take care of” their firearms, sadly, many will find out that is not the case . . . and they will find out too late to do anything about it.

You see, firearms present some unique challenges. The National Firearms Act (NFA) as well as state and local laws strictly regulate possession of certain weapons and may affect the transfer of permissible weapons. For example, convicted felons, those with a history of mental illness, persons convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, convicted users of illegal drugs, dishonorably discharged veterans, and persons who have renounced their U.S. citizenship are not allowed to own or possess certain weapons.

When an estate includes firearms or other weapons, the executor must be careful to avoid violating these laws.  Transferring a weapon to an heir to fulfill a bequest could subject the executor and/or the heir to criminal penalties.  Just having a weapon appraised could result in its seizure.  An out-of-state heir creates even more problems.

A revocable living trust designed specifically for the ownership, transfer and possession of weapons (commonly known as a gun, NFA or firearm trust) can avoid some of the problems or at least make them manageable. A corporation or LLC can also be used to own weapons, but trusts do not require annual filing fees, public disclosure or a separate tax return. Here are some of the main points:

  • The trust is the owner of the weapons.
  • The trust document must be carefully written to account for the different types of weapons held and comply with the applicable laws.
  • The name of the trust, once established, should not be changed. Because the regulated weapon is registered in the trust’s name, a change in the name of the trust would require that it be re-registered and a transfer tax paid.
  • The trust can name several trustees, each of whom may lawfully possess the weapon without triggering transfer requirements. (Persons not allowed by law to own or have access to the weapons in the trust are not eligible to be a trustee.)
  • Weapons can be purchased by a trustee to avoid having to pay a transfer tax.
  • Once a weapon becomes a trust asset, any beneficiary (including a minor child) may use it. However, the trustee is still responsible to determine the capacity of the beneficiary to use it.
  • Unlike a traditional revocable living trust which can be revoked at any time by the creator of the trust, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) must approve the termination of a gun trust and the distribution of its assets to the beneficiaries.
  • No regulated weapons held in the trust may be transported across state lines without prior BATFE approval.
  • Also, since weapon laws vary from state to state, gun trusts may not be valid from one state to another as a traditional revocable living trust would be.

As you can see, one mis-step in a Michigan gun trust can have disastrous results for those involved (and possibly others).  Give us a call at 616-827-7596 to help make sure you are protecting, preserving, and passing on the legacy you want and that you don’t “mis-fire” with your firearms in your planning.

Michael Lichterman is an estate planning and business planning attorney who helps families and business owners create a lasting legacy by planning for their Whole Family Wealth™.  This goes beyond merely planning for finances – it’s about who your are and what’s important to you.  He focuses on estate and asset protection planning for  the “experienced” generation, the “sandwich generation” (caring for parents and children), doctors/physicians, nurses, lawyers, dentists, professionals with minor children, family owned businesses and pet planning.  He takes the “counselor” part of attorney and counselor at law very seriously, and enjoys creating life long relationships with his clients – many of which have become great friends.