Q&A: This trust avoids probate (but not death and taxes)

Dear Liz: Reading your articles I understand that having a revocable living trust makes transferring wealth quicker and easier. What about taxes? If you use a will to bequeath your house, for example, the beneficiaries get a stepped-up cost basis. What are the taxes with a revocable living trust? Do you pay taxes on assets going into the trust and again going out to the beneficiaries? What are the tax advantages and disadvantages of a trust?

Answer: Many kinds of trusts have tax implications, but revocable living trusts typically don’t. Your assets get the same tax treatment as if you held them outright.

Some people mistakenly believe that revocable living trusts can help them avoid or eliminate estate taxes. The purpose of a living trust is primarily to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. In some states, including California, probate can be lengthy and expensive, which often makes a living trust worth the cost and effort to set up.

Living trusts also offer more privacy because they don’t have to be made public, unlike a will, which becomes a public record at your death. Living trusts also make it easier for your appointed person to take over for you in case you become incapacitated.

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.