Trusts: You Can Avoid Probate, but You Can’t Avoid (All) the Costs

Onassis_NYTThere’s a misconception out there that if you use a revocable living trust in your estate planning, you avoid probate and save on all those costs associated with probate. Well, maybe and maybe not.

First, in order to avoid probate, virtually everything you own has to be owned in a way that will do just that–avoid probate. Sounds circular, I know. What I mean is that if you own property

  1. As joint tenants with rights of survivorship–it will avoid probate.
  2. In so-called POD or Payable on Death accounts–it will avoid probate.
  3. That allows for you to name beneficiaries–a life insurance policy, for example–it will avoid probate.
  4. In a revocable trust–it will avoid probate.
  5. That doesn’t amount to much–you may avoid probate, or at least be eligible for some sort of simplified probate.

Put all that together, and you may avoid probate. But if you have a will, it will need to be proved valid in court–usually a routine process. If you own property that doesn’t fall in one of the categories I just listed, it will probably have to go through probate.

Bottom line, you may be able to avoid probate if you do everything right, own all of your property correctly, dot all your “i’s” and cross all your “t’s.” But if you don’t . . .

That said, to the extent that you do own your property as described above, you reap the big benefit of probate: You keep things private. For example, if your will says who gets the Picasso that hangs over the fireplace and who gets the cabin in the mountains when you die, anybody with the time to go down to the court and check can find that out. If, however, you say who gets what in your revocable trust, nobody has to know except for the people receiving the property. Maintaining your family’s privacy and saving time are the main benefits of avoiding probate to the degree possible. Don’t believe me? Ask Jackie Onassis’s family.

Now, about those costs. Yes, there are costs to probate. Attorney’s fees. Executor’s fees. Court costs. They all add up and can be expensive. But you know what, it costs money to administer a trust when you die: Attorney’s fees, again. Trustee’s fees, again. But typically no court costs. So yes, your estate will probably save money by avoiding probate, but your estate will still spend some money.

One more thing, a thing about revocable living trusts as an estate planning tool: They are predictable. You set them up. You outline all your plans, appoint trustees you trust, and tell them what you want them to do–in writing–and it’s all so predictable and happens almost seamlessly.

You turn that all over to the court in a probate proceeding, and predictability goes out the window.

Revocable living trusts are the way to go–for most people.

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