Category Archives: Trust Administration

Should I fire my lawyer?

bad lawyerDear Liza:  My grandmother passed in May 2012 and left my mother and I as equal beneficiaries of her estate.  The lawyer that we’ve been working with hasn’t been responsive to our questions or concerns.   After eight months of working with him, it seems that not much has happened. My mother and I don’t feel that he is giving our case an appropriate amount of attention. Should we fire him? Probably. Certainly if you’re not happy with the care with which you have been treated you should at least have a candid discussion with your attorney about it. If you can’t come to a reasonable resolution of the issues, you absolutely have the right to seek other counsel.  Your attorney is, after all, your attorney–and owes you a duty of loyatly and a duty to communicate adequately and keep you updated on the progress of the trust administration. If you do seek other counsel, you have the right to your client file as well. Good luck.

Transferring a house from a trust

 Dear Liza: My grandfather died in 2008. My mother is the first successor on the trust. We did all the post administration for the trust or so we thought. I recently read that my mother should have filed a deed to get the house placed into her name since that is what the trust called for. We have not done this. My question is the following…My mother wants the house to go to me, her son. What process would we have to do in order to get it from the trust to me? Your grandmother can file the deed she didn’t file after your grandfather died, getting the house into your grandmother’s name, as Trustee of the trust created by your grandfather. Once that’s done, her ability to give that house to you during her lifetime depends upon the terms of the trust your grandfather set up. She may be able to give it to you during her lifetime, in which case you will receive it at the value that it had in 2008, when your grandfather died.  She may only be able to transfer it to you at her death, in which case you will inherit it at the value the house has at her death.  She may not be able to give it to you at all, because, as you said, the terms of your grandfather’s trust became irrevocable at his death. I would advise you to see an estate planning attorney in your state to review your grandfather’s trust and advise your grandmother on the best strategy to accomplish her goals.

As for that mortgage, if you get the property transfer completed, you’ll have to request that the lender assume the loan in your own name, which they may or may not do, that depends on their calculations and your credit history.

Funding subtrusts after the death of the first spouse

Dear Liza: In settling an AB trust I understand that 50% of the estate is to be placed in each of the A and B trusts. However, in our estate our house is worth more than all of the other equity. How can the estate be settled? With percentages of the home? Put the home in which trust?  That’s not a question you can answer in the abstract.  Those decisions get made after the first spouse dies.  First, you can’t know, now, what assets you’ll own then.  Second, in an A/B trust, the assets of the deceased spouse are used to fund a trust, often called a “B” trust or a “Unified Credit Trust,” up to the amount of money that’s excluded from the federal estate tax in the year of the first spouse’s death.  In 2012, that’s $5.12 million, but at the end of this year, that number falls to $1 million, unless Congress enacts new law. So, it’s not always going to “half” of the total trust estate, that will entirely depend upon the tax code in effect at the time your spouse dies. But, to answer part of the question you asked, the B Trust can be funded with a percentage of the house, and often is when there aren’t other assets that can be used to do so.

I Inherited a House, Now What?

Dear Liza: My 90 yr. old mother recently died and I inherited her home, her only significant asset.  I  am preparing the Affidavit-Death of Trustee.  Does this put the title to the house in my name or do I also need a Quitclaim deed?  Do I need to create a new trust of my own or can it be left in the current one as I am a co-trustee? Sorry to hear about your Mom.  You are now engaging in what’s called “Trust Administration.”  The Affidavit Death of Trustee says that you are now the successor Trustee of your mother’s trust. (That means you have the legal authority to act under the trust with respect to the real property.) The next step for you is to then record a Trustee’s Deed transferring the property from that trust to yourself as an individual. (That gets the house to you outright and free of her trust.) If you want to set up a living trust, do that.  Then you’ll transfer the house from your own name to yourself, as Trustee of the new trust by recording a Trust Transfer Deed.  You can’t just leave the house in your mother’s trust, because now that she’s died, that trust is irrevocable and can’t be amended or changed.  Also, as Trustee, you’re just the manager of the assets, not the owner. You can use Nolo’s resources to create your own trust or work with an estate planner, that’s up to you.

Letters documenting Incapacity

Dear Liza: My 91 year old mother had a stroke in April. Her living trust designates my brother as Medical Power of Attorney and myself as Financial POA.   Her lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating our mother is mentally incapacitated before he can talk to both of us about her trust.   Why would a lawyer ask for them? Wasn’t the point of the trust to make everything hassle free?  Your mother’s lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating that your mother is incapable of managing her own affairs because, most likely, the trust states that you and your brother can act as successor Trustees only upon your mother’s incapacity. The trust probably also states that incapacity is to be determined by two letters from physicians stating, under penalty of perjury, that your mother is incapacitated. Many trusts are drafted this way. The idea is to protect your mother from having her powers as Trustee taken away unless she really can’t manage her own affairs.  Ask the attorney to provide you with letters for the doctors to sign — that shouldn’t be a big deal if, in fact, she isn’t able to manage.

Do I Need a Will and a Trust?

Dear Liza, is it necessary to have both a last will and testament if you have a living trust? Yes, that’s the way it is usually done. There are two main reasons for this.  First, if you have minor children, the Will is where you nominate guardians for them.  But also the Will provides an important way to make sure your trust is the one set of instructions for who gets what and how it’s managed.

 Here’s why: your trust holds the property that you transfer into it during your lifetime. You do this by either recording a deed (for real property) that transfers ownership from you as an individual to you as Trustee, or, in the case of a brokerage or bank account, by filing out paperwork that states that the account is owned by you, as Trustee.  (These are called Change of Title Forms at most institutions; sometimes Trust Account Applications or something similar.) However, most people don’t actually transfer all of their assets into such a trust.  When they die, often there are everyday checking and savings accounts, cars, or other assets outside of that trust.  Sometimes they have simply forgotten to transfer accounts that should have gone into the trust or refinanced a house and taken that house out of the trust in the process, then forgotten to put it back in. So, that’s where the Will comes in–it’s usually a special kind of Will, called a ‘pour-over Will’–and it says that all such property should be poured into the trust/transferred into the trust after a person’s died. That way all of a person’s property will be distributed via the trust.  A note of caution: if too much property is held outside of the trust, you will need a probate proceeding before you can transfer ownership to the trust (the trigger amount varies from state to state). So, don’t rely on that Will to make things work–make sure that your major assets are held by the trust during your lifetime.

Amending or Restating A Living Trust

Hi Liza,  I have a living trust and I’m the trustee in the trust.  I have a will in the trust.  I wanted to make some changes to the will and I’ve been told by my lawyer that I would have to
make another trust if I want to change the people in my will.  If the will doesn’t have to go to probate why can’t I just make the changes in the will and have my designated
trustee distribute my estate after I’m dead?  One of the people in my will has died, one is in a nursing home and two I haven’t heard from in years.  This doesn’t make
any sense to me.  Can you explain this to me? Well, truthfully, now I’m a tiny bit confused. It sounds like you have a trust, and in that trust you leave assets to various people. (I think that’s what having a “will in the trust” means.) Assuming that you are the Grantor of that trust (the person who established it) and it’s a revocable trust, you can certainly amend the trust to reflect your current intentions. It is common that we lose touch with people over the years, or change our minds about what we want to do with our assets over time. To make a small change to an existing document you would have your lawyer draft a trust amendment for you to sign, changing whatever sections of the existing trust needs revising. If you are making a lot of changes, you’d do what’s called a Restatement of Trust, which is like having an all-new trust with all current terms, but with the same name as the old trust, so you don’t need to retitle assets that are already in it. Maybe that’s what your lawyer meant by a “new trust.”

Joint Checking Accounts and Trusts

Dear Liza: My Mother passed in Feb of this year.  She opened a joint account with my Sister, so, should she become incapacitated, my sister could write checks on her behalf and it was opened with the understanding, that should something happen to my mother, the joint checking account should be split with her six other brother’s and sisters.  My sister is claiming the money is now hers to do with what she wants, who is right? This is one of those estate planning situations that come up a lot, and it’s also one where the law is clear, the moral obligations murky. Aged parents often put one child on an account like that, to make it easier to let them take care of their finances. But in making your sister the joint owner of the account, your mother also made her the legal owner of the money now because she is the surviving joint owner.  If your mother had wanted to make absolutely bullet-proof sure that any money in that account was to be split equally among all seven of you, she should have put that account into the trust (assuming that the trust splits everything seven equal ways) or named all seven of you as pay-on-death beneficiaries. But, of course, that’s no solace now. If your sister wants to honor your mother’s wishes, she could do that, but she’s not legally obligated to do so.

Can Mom change the Trust after Dad dies?

Dear Liza: My father died several years ago, after my mother passes the children inherit equally per both their wills and the Family Trust.  Can my mother change the terms of the trust now?  The documents state that the estate will be equally shared by the surviving children when our mother passes.  She has decided this means that she can give everything in the homes to one sibling and that when she passes  the homes will be sold and divided between all of the surviving children.  It seems to me this is not what Dad wanted.  Hmm. So, here’s a not very satisfying answer: MAYBE. It all depends on what your parents set up before your father died.  Some family trusts do indeed leave everything in a revocable trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse. If that’s what your parents did, then, yes, your mother is free to change the terms of that trust and she is free to give things away during her lifetime as well because the trust assets are all hers. If, however, your parents set up what’s called an “A/B” trust, your mother’s assets would be in a revocable trust that she would be free to change, but your father’s assets (up to the limit of whatever the estate tax exemption was in the year that he died) would be held in an irrevocable trust, which your mother would not be able to change during her lifetime. In California, where I practice, state law requires that you and your siblings would have to be notified after your father died if such an irrevocable trust was established upon his death. Notice requirements differ from state to state, however. Best to find out what your state requires. Your father’s Will probably leaves his tangible personal property (such as clothes, books, etc) to your mother, and then pours whatever else he owned at death into the family trust. So that’s the document that matters in determining what your mother can, and can’t, do now.

When to Fire Your Lawyer: Excessive Fees

Dear Liza, my brother and I are in the process of distributing the personal/real property of our recently departed mother’s estate/trust according to her wishes. The attorney for her estate initially included his fee of $17,000+ as part of one document. When questioned, he stated because of the divisive and hostile relation between my brother and me, he was going to charge fees in anticipation of the estate having to be probated, instead of treating it as an dissolution of an estate.  Can he do that? Yikes! $17,000 is A LOT of money to settle a living trust. Here’s my advice–fire that lawyer. Remember, you are the client and if a lawyer isn’t serving your needs (or is charging way too much), get yourselves a new one. Most attorney’s charge an hourly rate for trust administration services. At a rate of $200/hour (which is sort of low), you are being charged for EIGHTY FIVE hours of time. Most estates take only a fraction of that. As for his decision to submit the estate to probate–that’s your decision, not his. Probate can be an effective forum for resolving disputes, but in a trust administration that would be an unusual step. If the estate goes to probate, he can charge you a statutory fee equal to a percentage of the value of the assets in the estate, and $17,000 may actually be about right. But, he’s not entitled to bill you for services he hasn’t provided. Ask for a detailed billing statement outlining exactly how he is spending his time on your matter. If he can’t, or won’t, provide it, fire him and report him to the state bar. I have found that just mentioning your intention to report a lawyer to the state bar can result in an amazing reduction in an excessive bill. Also, ask for your client file on the way out–legally that’s yours, not his.