What does 'funding' a trust mean?
Funding your trust is the process of transferring your assets from you to your trust. To do this, you physically change the titles of your assets from your individual name (or joint names, if married) to the name of your trust. You may also change the beneficiary or contingent beneficiary designations to your trust.
Why is funding your trust so important?
If you have signed your living trust document, but haven’t changed titles and beneficiary designations, you will not avoid probate. Your living trust can only control the assets you put into it. You may have a great trust, but until you fund it (transfer your assets to it by changing titles), it doesn’t control anything. If your goal in having a living trust is to avoid probate at death and court intervention at incapacity, then you must fund it now, while you are able to do so.
What happens if I forget to transfer an asset?
Along with your trust, your attorney will prepare a “pour over will” that acts like a safety net. When you die, the will “catches” any forgotten asset and sends it to your trust. The asset will probably go through probate first, but then it can be distributed according to the instructions in your trust.
Which assets should I put in my trust?
Generally, assets you want in your trust include real estate, bank/saving accounts, investments, business interests and notes payable to you. You will also want to change most beneficiary or contingent beneficiary designations to your trust so those assets will flow into your trust and be part of your overall plan.
What about my IRA and other tax-deferred plans?
Do not change the ownership of these to your living trust. You can name your trust as the beneficiary, but be sure to consider all your options, which could include your spouse; children, grandchildren or other individuals; a trust; a charity; or a combination of these. Whom you name as beneficiary will determine the amount of tax-deferred growth that can continue on this money after you die.
Most married couples name their spouse as beneficiary because 1) the money will be available to provide for the surviving spouse and 2) the spousal rollover option can provide for many more years of tax-deferred growth. (After you die, your spouse can “roll over” your tax-deferred account into his/her own IRA and name a new beneficiary, preferably someone much younger, as your children and/or grandchildren would be.) A non-spouse beneficiary can also inherit a tax-deferred plan and roll it into an IRA to continue the tax-deferred growth, but only a spouse can name additional beneficiaries.
Of course, any time you name an individual as beneficiary, you lose control. After you die, the beneficiary can do whatever he or she wants with this money, including cashing out the account and destroying your carefully made plans for long-term, tax-deferred growth. The money could also be available to creditors, spouses and ex-spouses, and there is the risk of court interference at incapacity.
Naming a trust as beneficiary will give you maximum control because the distributions will be paid not to an individual, but into a trust that contains your written instructions stating who will receive this money and when. After you die, distributions will be based on the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary of the trust. You can also set up separate trusts for each beneficiary so that each one’s life expectancy can be used.
The rules for these plans have recently been made simpler, but it is still easy to make a costly mistake. Because there is often a lot of money at risk, be sure to get expert advice.