Fear-mongers have used the inter-vivos trust, also called revocable living trust, to sell books, trust kits, trust documents and other products and services. They often do this without regard to the individual’s tax and personal objectives. They scare the client by telling them that probate is a dreadfully complicated and horrendously expensive process. Then they offer to "save" the client: If you buy our estate plan which gives you a revocable living trust for $2,000 (or more) you will avoid all of this.
There is nothing wrong with a living trust. A living trust is a part of many appropriate estate plans. Living trusts can be beneficial depending on the type of assets you own, such as real estate located in several states. In addition, if you want someone else to manage your financial affairs, perhaps because you travel frequently, having a trustee of a living trust may offer fewer problems than relying on a Power of Attorney document.
But for other people, it can be a waste of money and time, or worse, it can actually defeat their intentions. In their attempt to save their heirs the perceived expense, time and loss of privacy caused by probate, other problems arise.
In fact, probate fees, themselves, are quite modest. For example, in Lancaster County, a will for a decedent with a $ 1 million probate estate can be admitted to probate for less than $300. Notice must be published in two newspapers, each costing cost about $60.
Avoiding probate by using a trust does offer some privacy. A will when probated becomes a public record which can be viewed by anyone. However, even where there is no probate property, the inheritance tax return is filed with the Register of Wills, so much of the financial information may be available to the public. In Lancaster County, inheritance tax returns are available for public inspection, whether or not the estate was probated.
Living trusts are sometimes promoted as a way to avoid excessive court supervision. However, with a living trust, you eliminate protections given to heirs in probate proceedings. A successor trustee of a trust may find it easier to succeed in illegally misdirecting your assets than would a will’s executor. Some states, Pennsylvania being one, subject wills to very little court supervision, therefore avoiding probate for this reason may be risky
A living trust does not always eliminate the need for probate. If you don’t transfer all your assets to the trust (and some assets – such as your everyday checking account or car don’t work well inside a trust) your estate will still need to be probated.
The main problem with living trusts is that they are marketed as an estate planning cure-all when they are not. Unscrupulous profiteers have discovered that preying upon fears, especially of the elderly, in regards to the estate planning process has led to the creation of estate mills.
What is a trust mill? As described by the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel, trust mills are organization which promote the indiscriminate marketing of inter-vivos by non-lawyers; often with the assistance of local counsel. Typically trust mill organizations consist of insurance agents, financial planners, stock brokers, and other individuals who are not lawyers, but who prepare estate planning documents from various forms. Sometimes these documents are sent to local counsel for "attorney review."
A trust mill promotes its product door-too-door, on TV, radio, in seminars, workshops, and through the mail Prices can range from $25 for a do-it-yourself kit to $5,000. The trust mill advertises with slogans like "Protect your assets", "Leave more to your heirs", and "Avoid the Agony of Probate". The trust mill makes exaggerated claims of reduced taxes, exaggerates the cost of probate and the need for privacy. The prices for these living trust packages often far exceed the legal fees that would be paid to a lawyer for a true estate plan.
"Don’t Trust Trust Kits," says the Michigan Bar Association. Get it. Their web site, www.michbar.org, lists some warning signs to make consumers beware of a living trust scam:
An ad or salesperson promising the consumer will "save on legal fees"
The use of a salesperson. The ethics rules governing attorneys do not permit the use of salespersons.
Encouragement to purchase other products such as investments or insurance.
A "first step" in the program that is anything other than a one-on-one meeting with a licensed attorney
An offer to purchase the fill-in-the blank forms or an estate planning kit.
No permanent local office.
Many states have taken action against trust mills on grounds of consumer fraud and the unauthorized practice of law. Preparing a trust in Pennsylvania requires a lawyer. Pennsylvania Attorney General issued a Consumer Advisory in July 2001 about Living Trust Scams, http://www.attorneygeneral.gov/press/cons_advis/July01.cfm If you have any questions, or want to file a complaint, call the PA Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection hotline: 1-800-441-2555, or visit their website at www.attorneygeneral.gov.
The Federal Trade Commission has issued a warnings about living trust promoters, see
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/services/livtrust.pdf , as have the AARP, http://www.aarp.org/confacts/money/wills-trusts.html.
We haven’t even touched on abusive trust schemes that claim to save income taxes. If you hear words like "Pure," "Pure Equity" or "Constitutional" Trust – these schemes are even worse than the living trust scams. Don’t be taken in. These trusts are tickets to the federal penitentiary. If you are approached by anyone selling a "Pure Trust" or a "Constitutional Trust" or similar vehicle with a pitch that the trust is exempt from income taxes, notify the F.B.I. or the Criminal Investigative Division of the Internal Revenue Service.
As Steve Leimberg says in his book, The New Book of Trusts, "The revocable trust (or, more accurately, the lack of an estate planning process that leads to the revocable trust) did not make matters better, but worse, just like the wrong surgery, the wrong drugs, or the right drugs in the wrong dosage, can make a patient worse, not better."