By Guy Halverson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Trusts have become one of the most popular legal instruments of the 1990s.
And there's little doubt why: Not only are they effective ways of handling an estate, but they are also heavily touted by estate- planning groups.
Trusts are legal entities that can hold, buy, transfer, or dispose of assets. Like wills, they are often used to dispose of a person's estate upon their passing.
A trust is an "extremely powerful legal document," says Lee Phillips, an attorney based in Provo, Utah, and author of "Protecting Your Financial Future." (800-806-1998).
But it is crucial to ensure that the trust is properly set up, he says.
On a recent seminar held aboard a cruise ship going from Los Angeles to Mexico in January, Phillips examined some 35 or 40 trust agreements brought to him by wealthy people on board. Only three or four would have survived an IRS tax audit, he says.
"Many people, especially older people, are constantly getting solicitations from lawyer's groups or financial advisers to set up a trust," says David Bendix, a financial planner who heads up Bendix Financial Group in Uniondale, N.Y.
But the reasons are not altogether altruistic: Attorneys and other financial specialists can often make far more money from setting up a trust - which can cost anywhere from $100 for a simple trust to several thousand dollars for a complex estate - than from setting up a will, which "usually costs less than $500," says Mr. Bendix.
Still, large numbers of trusts are being set up nowadays because they are far superior ways of disposing of estates than wills, trust attorneys insist.
"There is an increasing awareness of the benefits of living trusts," says Andrew Willms, an attorney who does extensive trust work in Milwaukee.
Trusts have become especially common in states where probate is fairly expensive, such as California and New York.
Mr. Willms tells his clients that unless there is a special reason for not having a trust, they are almost always better off setting up a trust.
A buyer's profile
Who should set up a trust? At least seven groups, says Paula Hogan, a financial planner in Milwaukee:
1. Older people who worry they won't be able to care for themselves at some point.