When you’re gone, your most important assets will remain — and they will be reallocated. Estate planning is a process that keeps you in control of the most important things in your life. Depending on the specifics of your circumstances, there are numerous estate planning mechanisms and tools to discuss with your estate planning attorney, including the testamentary trust.
A testamentary trust is a useful estate planning tool which can allow you to maintain control over some of your most important assets and help protect your beneficiaries in the months and years to come — particularly minor children, loved ones who happen to have a disability, and family members who may require some level of financial oversight and guidance to manage their inheritance.
What Is a Testamentary Trust?
In most basic terms, a testamentary trust is a trust that is contained in a will. Generally speaking, a testamentary trust is created through instructions set down in a decedent’s last will and testament.
Specifically, the testator (will-maker) may use their will to set down instructions for establishing a trust, specifying the assets that should be transferred into the trust, naming a trustee and beneficiaries of the trust, and leaving instructions for how the trustee should manage the trust contents on behalf of the beneficiaries. One example of an asset often used to fund a testamentary trust is the proceeds of a life insurance policy owned by the testator.
You can create multiple testamentary trusts in your will — for instance, you could create one trust for the benefit of your spouse, and another for your children or grandchildren.
Because it is established upon the death of the settlor, a testamentary trust is an irrevocable trust. With that said, you can make modifications or adjustments to the terms of the trust for as long as you are alive by amending or replacing your will with the help of a knowledgeable and thoughtful estates and trusts attorney. A testamentary trust can be used in conjunction with other estate planning mechanisms, including a revocable living trust. You can also still choose to make distributions of property or other assets through your will, and only transfer some assets into your testamentary trust.
How Do Testamentary Trusts Work?
Like all trusts, a testamentary trust is a written agreement created by a settlor or grantor that names an individual who is responsible for managing property as directed by the trust agreement, known as the trustee. Anyone who receives assets out of the trust is known as a beneficiary.
As we noted earlier, a testamentary trust is established through your written will. After the testator passes away, their will must be submitted for probate. It is then the responsibility of the decedent’s personal representative to see that the testamentary trust is opened and funded with the appropriate assets, following the instructions set down in the will. The trustee is then responsible for managing and distributing trust assets until the trust expires or the contents are fully distributed to the trust beneficiaries.
Often, a trust may be set up to expire on completion of a certain event — such as a beneficiary reaching a predetermined age or completing a milestone like graduating from college.
It is worth reiterating that the assets you want placed into your testamentary trust will not avoid probate. All wills are subject to probate in the Michigan courts. Funds and assets can only be transferred into the newly created trust after they have been probated. The trustee may also need to provide regular reports and accountings to the probate court, to prove that the trust is being properly managed.
The probate process can become expensive and time-intensive, particularly without proper planning. If probate avoidance is one of your main estate planning goals, you may wish to discuss the benefits of creating a revocable living trust with your estate planning attorney. Unlike a testamentary trust, a revocable living trust is funded with assets while the settlor is still alive, which means that these assets can be transferred outside of probate. Revocable living trusts also tend to offer greater privacy, since they do not become a matter of public record.
As you consider the upsides and limits of any trust, it is important to consider who you will name as trustee. It is important to find someone who will be up to the important task of managing your trust assets and distributing them appropriately. The most important thing about choosing a trustee is that they are the best choice for your circumstances. This process is not about making people feel equal; it is about ensuring your wishes are respected and carried out when you no longer have a say in the matter.
Why Use a Testamentary Trust?
Testamentary trusts are often used to help ensure that you are able to maximize the assets available to your beneficiaries, while ensuring that receiving an inheritance does not become a detriment.
Testamentary trusts are often used to hold funds for the ongoing or future education of minor children, or to allocate funds in set increments so that they cannot be squandered by a profligate beneficiary who is irresponsible with money. Testamentary trusts can also be supplemental or special needs trusts, which are designed to provide an inheritance to beneficiaries who happen to be physically, mentally, or developmentally disabled without interrupting government benefits.
For an example, consider the fictional couple Steve and Sandra, who have two 18 year old boys, Ricky and Spencer. When Steve and Sandra die suddenly in a car accident, the balance of their estate is transferred to the boys.
Always the less responsible son, Spencer immediately spends his inheritance on a sports car and a new home, rather than using the money for school as his parents might have wanted. While Ricky tries to be responsible and spend his inheritance on college expenses, unexpected car repairs and a turbulent stock market affect him financially, forcing him to take on a full-time job in addition to school.
In both cases, Spencer and Ricky might have benefitted had Steve and Sandra set up testamentary trusts, nominating a responsible trustee to manage the finances for their children and helping to ensure that their health, education, maintenance, and support would be taken care of.
The Importance of Working With an Experienced Michigan Estate Planning and Probate Attorney
Whether you are taking care to plan for your family’s future or put in the position of defending or contesting a will or trust in the Michigan probate courts, know that you do not have to go through these difficult circumstances alone.
Ready to create a plan that will help you maintain control over your most important assets, and help take care of the people who matter most? Our firm has the experience and knowledge to walk you through the process of creating an estate plan that will protect your family.
At the Law Office of Dean E. Patrick, PLLC, we put our legal experience and skills together with our commitment to excellence in representing your rights. You can depend on our law firm’s ability to listen to you and our talent for creative strategies. We will be flexible in order to accommodate your needs, and we work hard to discuss these difficult matters in terms that are easy to comprehend. With staff available 24 hours a day, we’re also never far from your questions and concerns.
If you have further questions or are looking for representation as you navigate Michigan’s tricky probate court system, don’t hesitate to call our Southfield, Michigan office at (833) 469-4897 to set up your initial consultation. You may also click here to get in touch online.
This post has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information you obtain here is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. We invite you to contact us and welcome your calls and electronic mail. Accessing the content of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship. Nor, does contacting us create an attorney-client relationship. Please do not send any confidential information to us until such time as an attorney-client relationship has been established.