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.