Should a Husband and Wife have Separate Trusts?

The decision about separate or joint trusts is not as straightforward as you might think. Sometimes, there is an obvious need to keep things separate, according to the recent article “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples” from Kiplinger. However, it is not always the case.

A revocable living trust is a popular way to pass assets to heirs. Assets titled in a revocable living trust don’t go through probate and information about the trust remains private. It is also a good way to plan for incapacity, avoid or reduce the likelihood of a death tax and make sure the right people inherit the trust.

There are advantages to Separate Trusts:

They offer better protection from creditors. When the first spouse dies, the deceased spouse’s trust becomes irrevocable, which makes it far more difficult for creditors to access, while the surviving spouse can still access funds.

If assets are going to non-spouse heirs, separate is better. If one spouse has children from a previous marriage and wants to provide for their spouse and their children, a qualified terminable interest property trust allows assets to be left for the surviving spouse, while the balance of funds are held in trust until the surviving spouse’s death. Then the funds are paid to the children from the previous marriage.

Reducing or eliminating the death tax with separate trusts. Unless the couple has an estate valued at more than $23.16 million in 2020 (or $23.4 million in 2021), they won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. However, there are still a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, with state estate taxes and half-dozen states with inheritance taxes. These estate tax exemptions are considerably lower than the federal exemption, and heirs could get stuck with the bill. Separate trusts as part of a credit shelter trust would let the couple double their estate tax exemption.

When is a Joint Trust Better?

If there are no creditor issues, both spouses want all assets to go to the surviving spouse and state estate tax and/or inheritance taxes aren’t an issue, then a joint trust could work better because:

Joint trusts are easier to fund and maintain. There is no worrying about having to equalize the trusts, or consider which one should be funded first, etc.

There is less work at tax time. The joint trust doesn’t become irrevocable, until both spouses have passed. Therefore, there is no need to file an extra trust tax return. With separate trusts, when the first spouse dies, their trust becomes irrevocable and a separate tax return must be filed every year.

Joint trusts are not subject to higher trust tax brackets, because they do not become irrevocable until the first spouse dies. However, any investment or interest income generated in an account titled in a deceased spouse’s trust, now irrevocable, will be subject to trust tax brackets. This will trigger higher taxes for the surviving spouse, if the income is not withdrawn by December 31 of each year.

In a joint trust, after the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has complete control of the assets. When separate trusts are used, the deceased spouses’ trust becomes irrevocable and the surviving spouse has limited control over assets.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine which is best for your situation. This is a complex topic, and this is just a brief introduction.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 20, 2020) “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples”

How Can You Disinherit Someone and Be Sure it Sticks?

Let’s say you want to leave everything you own to your children, but you can’t stand and don’t trust their spouses. That might make you want to delay making an estate plan, because it’s a hard thing to come to terms with, says a recent article “Dealing with disinheritance, spouses” from the Times Herald-Record. There are options, but make the right choice, or your estate could face challenges.

Some people choose to leave nothing at all for their child in the will, so that if there is a divorce or if the child dies, their assets won’t end up in the daughter or son-in-law’s pocket. For some parents, particularly those who are estranged from their children, this can create more problems than it solves.

Disinheriting a child with a will is not always a good idea. If you die with assets in your name only, they go through the court proceeding called probate, when the will is used to guide asset distribution. The law requires that all children, even disinherited ones, are notified that you have died, and that probate is going to occur. The disinherited child can object to the provisions in the will, which can lead to a will contest. Most families engaged in litigation over a will become estranged—even those that weren’t beforehand. The cost of litigation will also take a bite out of the value of your estate.

A common tactic is to leave a small amount of money to the disinherited child in the will and add a no-contest clause in the will. The no-contest clause expressly states that anyone who contests the will loses any right to their inheritance. Here is the problem: the disgruntled child may still object, despite the no contest clause, and invalidate the will by claiming undue influence or incapacity or that the will was not executed properly. If their claims are valid, then they’ll have great satisfaction of undoing your planning.

How can you disinherit a child, and be sure that your plan is going to stand up to challenge?

A trust is better in this case than a will. Not only do trusts avoid probate, but (unless state law requires otherwise at death) the children do not receive notice of the creation of a trust. An inheritance trust, where you leave money to your child, names a trustee to be in charge of the trust and the child is the only beneficiary of the trust. The child might be a co-trustee, but they do not have complete control over the trust. The spouse has no control over the inheritance, and you can also name what happens to the assets in the trust, if the child dies.

This kind of planning is called “controlling from the grave,” but it’s better than not knowing if your child will be able to protect their inheritance from a divorce or from creditors.

With a national divorce rate around fifty percent, it’s hard to tell if the in-law you welcome with an open heart, will one day become a predatory enemy in the future, even after you are gone. The use of trusts can ensure that assets remain in the bloodline and protect your hard work from divorces, lawsuits, creditors and other unexpected events.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (June 6, 2020) “Dealing with disinheritance, spouses”