Insight on Estate Planning - April/May 2013: The key to an effective trust is education

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A trust is a versatile estate planning tool. It’s a vehicle for transferring wealth to the next generation in a tax-efficient manner. It can also provide incentives for your beneficiaries, serve as a financial “safety net” for your family, protect assets from creditors, achieve your philanthropic goals and leave a lasting legacy.

But no matter how well it’s designed and drafted, a trust won’t reach its full potential unless all of the stakeholders — grantor, trustee and beneficiaries — understand the trust’s goals and their roles in achieving them.

Grantor

No one understands the goals of a trust better than you, the grantor. But it’s critical that you communicate your goals to your advisors and understand how the trust will achieve them.

You should also educate yourself about the trustee’s duties and responsibilities to ensure that you select the right person for the job. You want to be sure, for example, that your trustee possesses the requisite financial, business, organizational and interpersonal skills.

It’s also important to consider potential conflicts between the trustee and the beneficiaries, particularly if the trustee is a family member. To avoid conflicts and ensure the trustee is qualified, it may be desirable to engage a professional trustee, such as a bank, trust company, attorney or financial advisor.

Trustee

Once you’ve identified potential trustees, you should educate them about what’s involved so they can make an informed decision about whether to accept the job. Some people, for example, may feel that they’re not qualified to manage investments or that they’re too close to the family to make objective decisions regarding distributions and other matters.

It’s also critical to educate the trustee about what you hope to accomplish with the trust. Although it’s possible to include very specific instructions in the trust document, often trusts are more effective if the trustee has broad discretion in managing and distributing trust assets. Educating the trustee helps ensure that he or she will exercise this discretion with your goals and principles in mind.

Beneficiaries

Don’t underestimate the importance of educating a trust’s beneficiaries. So long as they’re old enough, they shouldn’t be simply passive recipients of your wealth. Make sure they understand your goals and how the trust will provide financial security for them and their dependents down the road.

This is particularly critical if the trust is required to provide beneficiaries with withdrawal rights in order to qualify contributions for the $14,000 annual gift tax exclusion. Although you can’t ask your beneficiaries to agree not to exercise their withdrawal rights, you should educate them about the long-term benefits of keeping assets in the trust.

Providing beneficiaries with financial training and educating them about their rights will enable them to monitor trust performance (particularly after you’re gone) and, if necessary, replace the trustee. It’s also a good idea to set up periodic meetings between the trustee and beneficiaries to keep the lines of communication open.

Read the owner’s manual

A trust is a powerful estate planning tool. But like any other tool, it won’t produce the best results unless all stakeholders learn how to use it properly.