Q&A: Don’t rush when setting up your living trust

Dear Liz: Your column recently answered a question about whether a living trust was the right move, and I thought you mentioned a free online form or worksheet that one could download and fill out. Where can I find that?

Answer: Many sites offering free software or forms are actually subscription services. You typically use a credit card to sign up and are charged a monthly fee after the free trial period ends. If you can wrap up your estate planning in short order and cancel before the fee kicks in, your trust may be free — but given what’s at stake, it’s not a good idea to rush.

After all, if you make a mistake with your estate planning that’s revealed after your death, you can’t come back and fix it. That means your desire to save a few bucks could cost your heirs dearly.

At a minimum, you should consider consulting with an attorney to ensure you’re not making obvious errors. Some of the do-it-yourself sites, including LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, offer the option to consult with a lawyer. RocketLawyer, a $40-a-month subscription service, has a seven-day free trial. LegalZoom sells a $269 living trust package that includes a 30-day free trial of its subscription advice service. After the free trial, the subscription costs $15 a month. Legal self-help site Nolo has an online living trust form for $60 that doesn’t include advice, but you can use Nolo’s attorney directory to find an expert you can hire for a review.

If your situation is at all complicated — blended families, special needs children, contentious heirs, family businesses, foreign assets and large estates all count — then it’s best to seek out an experienced estate planning attorney to draft your paperwork.

Q&A: Why setting up a living trust may be wise, especially in California

Dear Liz: Is there a minimum amount of assets required before a revocable living trust is advisable? I am retired but my wife is still working. If we do not include our 401(k) plans, our total liquid assets (my wife’s monthly salary, my monthly Social Security benefit and my pension check) are below $100,000. We do not own a house or other real estate and do not have any major outstanding loans. We own our only car, a 2009 non-luxury vehicle.

Assuming we need a trust, do we still need to make out a will? If so, can we use a state-specific form online or just make out a handwritten will? Lastly, can a will be “until further notice” or do we have to update it each year? It should be obvious that we are trying to save expenses where we can.

Answer: Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise oversees the paying of creditors and distribution of someone’s assets. (The sources of income you listed aren’t considered assets, by the way, since those will cease upon your deaths and can’t be transferred to other heirs.) Living trusts offer privacy, because probate is a public process, and can make it easier for a designated person to take over for you if you should become incapacitated.

There’s no specific dollar amount of assets for which a living trust becomes a good idea. In many states, probate isn’t a big deal, while in others — including California — probate is expensive enough that the cost of setting up a living trust can be worthwhile. Even in California, smaller estates (those under $150,000) can avoid probate or qualify for a streamlined process that can make living trusts unnecessary.

Those with larger estates may be able to avoid probate using other methods.

The money in your 401(k)s, for example, will pass directly to the beneficiaries you name. In many states, you also can name a beneficiary for a vehicle right on the registration form so your car could avoid probate. Some states also offer this “transfer on death” option for real estate.

“Plan Your Estate,” an excellent primer from self-help legal publisher Nolo, details your options.

Living trusts typically replace the need for a will, although a lawyer likely would recommend creating a “pour-over” will to include any assets accidentally left out of the trust. If you don’t have a living trust, you’ll definitely need wills to outline how you want your property distributed.

You also should create powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances, so that someone you name can make decisions for you should you become incapacitated. These documents are probably more important than a will because they can determine your quality of life at the end of your days rather than just what happens to your stuff when you’re beyond caring.

Do-it-yourself options are fine if your estate is small, simple and unlikely to be challenged by contentious heirs. Each state has specific requirements for making a legal will, which will be detailed in the software or online forms you use. You don’t have to update a will yearly but it’s a good idea to at least review your estate documents annually to see if any changes might be needed.

Q&A: Which is better: Will or living trust?

Dear Liz: I am 48 and my wife is 45. Should we set up a will or a living trust? Which is better?

Answer: One of the major differences between wills and living trusts is whether the estate has to go through probate, which is the court process that typically follows death. Living trusts avoid probate while wills do not.

Probate isn’t a big problem in many states, but in some — including California — it can be protracted, expensive and often worth avoiding. Another advantage of living trusts is privacy. While wills are entered into the public record, living trusts aren’t.

Living trusts can help you avoid another court-supervised process called conservancy. If you’re incapacitated, the person you’ve named as your “successor trustee” can take over management of your finances without going to court. To avoid the court process without a living trust, you’d need separate documents called powers of attorney. If you have minor children, your living trust trustee can manage their money for them. If you have a will, you would need to include language setting up a trust and naming a trustee.

One big disadvantage of living trusts is the cost. Although price tags vary, a lawyer typically charges a few hundred dollars for a will, while a living trust may cost a few thousand. Also, there’s some hassle involved, since property has to be transferred into the trust to avoid probate.

There are do-it-yourself options, including Nolo software and LegalZoom, that can save you money if your situation isn’t complicated and you’re willing to invest some time in learning about estate planning. If your situation is at all complicated, though — if you’re wealthy or have contentious relatives who are likely to challenge your documents — an experienced attorney’s help can be invaluable.

Whichever you decide, make sure that you have one or the other before too much longer. Otherwise, when you die, state law will determine who gets your stuff and who gets your kids.

Q&A: Does moving to a new state necessitate a new living trust?

Dear Liz: My husband and I have a revocable trust that was drawn up in Florida. We live in California now. We are renting and don’t own a house. Do we still need a trust if we don’t own property and have just one adult child to leave our financial funds to? One tax planner wants to charge us $1,800 to revise our trust to comply with California laws. That sounds high to me. What do you recommend?

Answer: Any time you move across state lines, you should have your estate documents reviewed and — probably — revised. State laws differ, and in this case you moved from a common law state to a community property state, where the rules differ a lot. Property acquired during marriage in a common law state isn’t automatically owned by both spouses, while in community property states, it typically is.

“Property,” by the way, doesn’t just refer to real estate. It refers to pretty much all your assets, including financial funds.

A relatively simple revocable living trust typically costs $2,000 and up, so the price you were quoted does not seem high, but you can check with one or two other estate planning attorneys if you want to compare costs.

Q&A: Amending a living trust

Dear Liz: My husband and I had a lawyer draw up a revocable living trust and a pour-over will six years ago. We need to amend a couple of areas, and I found it could be done with a form from a self-help legal site. Also, we need to add our home into the trust. My husband doesn’t want to use a lawyer. Can we legally do the amendment and addition of the home without a lawyer?

Answer: Sure. But your heirs may pay for any mistakes you make.

The big red flag is that you haven’t transferred your home to the living trust, even though you’ve had six years to do so. If it’s not in the trust, it will be subject to probate, the court process that the trust is meant to avoid. You need to be extremely diligent if you’re going to try to create a do-it-yourself estate plan, and you’ve already proved that you aren’t. All you’ve done is undermine the estate plan you paid for years ago.

Amending the trust, and having a lawyer help you transfer your home into it, probably will cost a fraction of what you paid originally. It also would give your attorney an opportunity a chance to review the documents in case other changes need to be addressed. A relatively small investment could pay off in peace of mind that the job has finally been done right.

Q&A: Creating a will

Dear Liz: I’m a 58-year-old man. I want to make a will just in case something happens to me. I have about $500,000 in stock and cash. I have a life partner and her son. I would like to split my assets between her and my sister. Any suggestions on how to go about this?

Answer: Just in case you turn out not to be immortal, having a will is a very good idea. Otherwise, your assets would be distributed according to state law, which means your lady friend probably would get nothing.

You also may want to consider probate, the court process that typically follows death. While probate is fairly simple in most states, in others — including California — it can be expensive and slow, making a living trust a worthwhile option.

You can prepare a will or living trust using do-it-yourself online legal sites and software such as Quicken WillMaker. If your relatives are likely to contest your will or your situation is otherwise complicated, you should consult with an estate planning attorney for help.

You could provide additional protections and advantages to your partner by getting married. As your wife, she could receive spousal and survivor benefits from Social Security based on your work record. You both would have visitation rights if the other were hospitalized and be empowered to make financial and health decisions if the other were incapacitated.

Marriage can have many other legal, financial and tax benefits as well. If you opt to remain unmarried, please talk to an attorney about available ways you can protect each other’s rights.

Elderly mom isn’t the only one overdue for estate planning

Dear Liz: Could you advise us on how to protect our 93-year-old mother’s assets if she should become ill or die? She does not have a living will or a trust regarding her two properties.

Answer: “If” she should become ill or die? Your mother has been fortunate to have had a long life, presumably without becoming incapacitated, but her luck can’t hold out forever.

Your mother needs several legal documents to protect both herself and her assets. Perhaps the most important are powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances. These documents allow people she designates to make medical decisions and handle her finances for her should she become incapacitated. In addition, she may want to fill out a living will, which would outline the life-prolonging care she would and wouldn’t want if she can’t make her wishes known. (In some states, living wills are combined with powers of attorney for healthcare, and in others they are separate documents.)

These legal papers aren’t important just for the elderly, by the way. You should have these too, since a disabling illness or accident can happen to anyone.

Your mother also should consider a will or a living trust that details how she wants to parcel out her estate to her heirs. Of the two documents, wills tend to be simpler and cheaper to draft, but a living trust means the court process known as probate can be avoided. The probate process is public, and in some states (particularly California) it can be protracted and expensive. A living trust also could make it easier for someone to take over managing her finances in case of incapacity or death.

You can find an attorney experienced in estate planning by contacting your state’s bar association. Expertise and competence are important, so you may want to look for a lawyer who is a member of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, an invitation-only group that includes many of the best in this field.

If she or you are trying to protect her assets from long-term care or other medical costs, you’ll need someone experienced in elder care law to advise you. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.