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Living Trusts Do Not Avoid Probate

Roger McClure Oct. 26, 2009

Most, Not All. One of the primary purposes of setting up a living trust is to avoid probate. But, according to our informal survey of the experiences of thousands of estate planners nationally, most living trusts do not avoid probate.

Probate. When someone dies with property only in their name, then generally there is a legal process called probate. The designated person, often called the executor, if the person dying had a will, files the will with the court where the deceased lived. Then, typically, the executor or executrix must file an initial list of the assets in the estate, often called the inventory, and pay any court fees and applicable inheritance taxes. There may be annual reports and a later court approval of how the money is distributed to the heirs. The procedures are basically the same even if there was no will.

Dacey: Avoid Probate. Norman Dacey, who died on October 21, 2009, created a huge controversy when he wrote “How to Avoid Probate” in 1965. Dacey criticized the probate system and advocated that people use living trusts to avoid the costs, delays and publicity of the probate process. According to the New York Times, Dacey sold over two million copies of his book and was subject to lawsuits that claimed, because he was not a lawyer, he was practicing law without a license to do so. Dacey lost a case over this in Connecticut, but won one in New York. Many non lawyers saw this as an attempt by the Bar to protect the lucrative probate business of lawyers.

Living Trusts. What was new in 1965 for most Americans, the living trust, is now relatively commonplace today. This is part due to Dacey and the many attorneys advertising the advantages of living trusts. A living trust is a legal entity under US and English law which provides instructions for taking care of your property and you during your lifetime and after death. The way the trust avoids probate is that you change the title to your assets so that the trust is now the owner of your assets. When the person dies, the trust continues in existence and the designated trustees (usually children) take over all of the assets owned by the trust and split them up outside of probate.

Most Do Not Work. Many lawyers who write living trusts only provide the document and related will and powers of attorney. But to avoid probate, there must be an actual change of the title to the house, bank accounts, brokerage accounts and where appropriate, life insurance, to the name of the trust. If you have $100,000 in a bank account in your name only and you pass, then, in many states, probate has to be initiated before any of the $100,000 can go to your heirs. Of course, if the account was owned with someone else with right of survivorship, then the money would go to the survivor and not yet be subject to probate. The reason why most living trusts do not avoid probate is because the client or the lawyer does not take this crucial second step of transferring the assets to the living trust. More on this process called “funding” in future articles. The minority of living trusts – those that do own all of the deceased person’s property – do avoid probate.