Q&A: The Ins and Outs of Trusts

Dear Liz: I liked your answer to the person who wanted to ensure a son from a prior marriage got an inheritance. You mentioned creating a trust so the surviving spouse can get income from the assets but then the son would inherit when that spouse dies. However, what’s to prevent the surviving spouse from using up all the funds so that the son is left with nothing after all?

Answer: These trusts typically put restrictions on how much the surviving spouse would be able to access and in what circumstances. If the surviving spouse is the sole trustee, of course, the temptation to ignore the rules could be great. Alternatively, the ultimate inheritor or a third party can be named as trustee or co-trustee.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the trusts create a conflict between the survivor and the ultimate inheritor. The survivor typically wants as much income as possible from the trust while the inheritor wants the trust to be left alone to grow.

Another issue is taxes. Assets in the trust will get a step-up in tax basis when the first spouse dies, but not when the surviving spouse dies.

Often, the best way to make sure someone gets an inheritance is to make an outright bequest rather than putting the money in a trust. If a surviving spouse needs income from the assets to make ends meet, though, a trust with a responsible trustee can help ensure the ultimate inheritor gets the inheritance that was intended.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you sort through the available options and make the best plan for your loved ones.