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What is a Family Trust?

Cassie L. Damewood
Cassie L. Damewood

A family trust, also known as a living trust or revocable living trust, is a legal document that permits the person who prepares it or has it prepared to make changes to it at will. This type of trust covers how a person’s assets are handled before and after death. These provisions can include anything from beneficiaries to property and cash allocations.

The main reasons this type of trust is popular is that it typically lowers estate taxes, avoids probate procedures and prevents public disclosure of a person’s assets and worth. Unlike a simple will, a family trust keeps all terms of the settlement private and protected from any government seizure or public scrutiny. A simple will may dictate the distribution of some of the decedent’s property but anything not specifically listed is subject to public probate procedures.

In some instances, disagreements over inherited titles and large family estates can become acrimonious.
In some instances, disagreements over inherited titles and large family estates can become acrimonious.

What makes a family trust unique is its structure. It generally consists of three main players, the grantor, the trustee and the beneficiary. Depending on the region in which it is prepared and who prepares it, the term grantor may be substituted with the words settlor, creator or trustor. The other two terms are generally consistent in all family trusts.

A family trust keeps wealth within a family.
A family trust keeps wealth within a family.

The grantor is typically the person who prepares the family trust, normally with the assistance of an attorney or legal professional who specializes in trust preparation. The trustee is the person entrusted by the grantor to protect the property. This person is generally expected to distribute the property to the beneficiary per the instructions and wishes of the grantor.

In a revocable living trust, the same person traditionally has all three roles when the document is prepared. This guarantees that the grantor’s power over the property at hand is not usurped by the trustee. The only way a trustee can gain control of the property while the grantor is still living is if the grantor is determined by law to be mentally incompetent.

Once the grantor dies, the trustee takes over. The trustee is lawfully compelled to distribute the property listed in the trust exactly as the grantor desired. At this point, the trustee may also become the beneficiary or one of the beneficiaries if the grantor has so directed.

Family trusts are generally preferred over other plans based on their typical simplicity. The powers of the grantor and trustee are normally considered irrefutable, so no room for challenges typically exists. Many people prepare their own living trusts with the aid of readily available educational books and Web sites. However, due to the sometimes confusing legal terms involved, it is commonly advised to engage the assistance of a professional to avoid uncertainty or mistakes.

Discussion Comments


I'm curious how the AB Trust would affect a divorce regarding property settlement.


What happens when the trustee goes to sell the real property and the title company is asking for the original trust agreement but the attorney that prepared it has retired and no longer has his files?


Actually, $2,000 is very reasonable for setting up a living trust. The previous poster - like a lot of people - is only looking at the trust itself, which pretty much guarantees it will be wrong, and ineffective.

First, you need a will, which covers any assets not in the trust, including assets acquired after the trust is created. Second, you need to draft the deeds, etc. to actually transfer the property into the trust (and then make sure that they are properly recorded)- just saying that a house is in the trust is meaningless. Third, there are health care and financial powers of attorney which are typically done in conjunction with a will, because hey, you might have health problems as you age.

You should never cheap out on estate planning. Sure, you don't have to spend $10,000 on a simple RLT, but $2,000 is very reasonable. Anything below that, and you risk it being defective.


Just wanted to point out that unless assets are huge and complicated, and there is no reason why setting up a living trust should cost anywhere near $2000.


Crispety- I just want to add that an estate lawyer can help with setting up a family living trust.

Although fees may vary, many family trust funds can be set up for less than $2,000.


Bhutan- I agree revocable living trusts are ideal for everyone.

In fact, Suze Orman highly recommends a revocable family trust. This trust can be changed from time to time, but the irrevocable family trust can not be amended.

It is best to allow flexibility and obtain a revocable family trust instead.


I just want to add that a revocable living trust is an excellent idea because the assets transfer directly to the beneficiary without having to go to probate and incur additional costs.

Many people that own businesses or have children with special needs that require lifetime care usually set up a family trust account to ensure that their loved one is taken care of for life and their legacy continues with their business.

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    • In some instances, disagreements over inherited titles and large family estates can become acrimonious.
      By: Monkey Business
      In some instances, disagreements over inherited titles and large family estates can become acrimonious.
    • A family trust keeps wealth within a family.
      By: Rido
      A family trust keeps wealth within a family.