On the surface, Trusts are fairly simple and have many advantages. These advantages include that they provide a useful structure to control assets; they are generally administered privately, without Probate or other court intervention; and they can serve as a useful roadmap for a responsible manager (the trustee) to manage the trust assets for the beneficiaries.
No matter who the stakeholders are – settlors who establish the trust, trustees who manage the trust or beneficiaries who have beneficial interests in the trust – they can often benefit from professional consultation about the rules and requirements applicable to this important legal instrument. Hiring experienced legal counsel is nearly always necessary or appropriate to advise these stakeholders about how to protect themselves in the process of fulfilling their obligations and asserting their rights.
Revocable Living Trust
To the extent they are drafted well, thorough and practically designed, are often relatively straightforward to administer, both during the life of the settlor(s) – the person(s) who established the Trust – and following the death of the settlor(s). If the Trust was executed and funded properly, it has the important advantage of allowing it to be administered privately, without requiring an expensive and inconvenient court Probate proceeding. Nevertheless, the Trustee (i.e. manager) of the Trust has many general and specific rights and obligations that few laypeople know or understand. The obligations (among the central one – that the trustee act neutrally and in the best interest of the Trust beneficiaries) are many, and include a host of legal requirements that must be followed, notifications to be given, and forms to be prepared and filed. As such, it is usually both short-sighted and dangerous for a Trustee to attempt to administer a Trust without hiring an attorney experienced in handling Trust Administration to assist him or her.
“Summary” Estate Administration
Sometimes, circumstances are such that a decedent did not have a Revocable Living Trust, but a full Probate proceeding may not be required. Instead, certain documents may be prepared and/or a much more expedited court proceeding can be initiated. An example of such “summary administration” is for small estates – generally those in which the decedent died with total gross assets of less than $150,000 (other than accounts that were titled jointly with someone else or that had a designated beneficiary) and owned no real estate. Another example is a situation in which all or substantially all of the assets were owned as community property with a spouse who survived the decedent. In cases where summary administration is available and appropriate, loved ones can usually benefit from legal services rendered relatively quickly and with a modest investment of attorneys’ fees and applicable costs.
Trust/Estate Beneficiary Representation
Sometimes, the beneficiary of a Trust or Estate needs assistance. Such help may be necessary or desirable in the beneficiary’s quest to: understand the applicable document(s); identify his or her rights; review correspondence or court filings made by the person administering the Trust or Estate; challenge distributions made or withheld; evaluate an accounting or actions of the Trust/Estate administrator; and/or communicate with the administrator or attorney to learn status, obtain more information or apply pressure to conclude a dilatory administration. Frequently, by hiring an attorney to assist in this process, the beneficiary’s interest is protected better, and proper and timely administration is facilitated.
Will & Trust Disputes
Unfortunately, disputes of varying kinds over Wills and Trusts occur with a fair amount of frequency. Often, with expert legal advice and associated thoughtful communication and negotiation, these disputes can be resolved amicably. Sometimes, it takes little time and effort; other times it requires more time and effort, and perhaps a collaborator mediation of the parties; and still other times, resolution is only possible when the matter is litigated. In any event, it is wise to obtain careful legal advice from the outset to evaluate the issues, applicable law and potential avenues toward efficient resolution.