Ask Stacy: Who Should I Leave My Money To?

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What’s the one document all Americans should be dying to have, but many don’t?

A will.

Any financial adviser worth his salt will insist you have one. He’ll say things like, “It doesn’t cost much, takes only a few minutes to prepare, and will save both money and hassle for those you leave behind.”

All true. What’s also true, however, is sometimes planning for one’s demise can open a can of worms. Case in point: this week’s reader question:

Stacy, I have a good problem to have, but I need some advice.

I am a 50ish, single female with some health problems. My worth is slightly over $2 million and I’m still working. My problem is, I need to make a trust or something. I am good at saving money and working, but have very little financial expertise otherwise. A family member has been helping me.

Problem: I have two children, one in college and the other a high school grad this year. Neither would be able to manage their money if something happens to me. The college student’s boyfriend would spend hers and my son would just blow his. I would like to leave the money in a trust for them but I don’t know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages? Thanks. — Susie

This is a common problem, even among those not as well off as Susie. When you make a will, you’re deciding who’s going to get your money in the event of your death. But if you have irresponsible adult heirs, your demise could have an unintended consequence — the death of your life savings.

I’ve had personal experience with this problem. But before I tell my story and answer Susie’s question, let’s understand a few estate-planning basics.

A will vs. a trust

A will is a simple document describing, among other things, how you’d like your stuff distributed upon your death. If you don’t have one, a status known as dying intestate, your possessions generally pass to your spouse, then your nearest blood relatives. If you don’t have any, they’ll go to the state.

To make sure everything’s on the up-and-up, distributions by most wills are overseen by a court. This process is called probate.

A trust is different. It involves three roles:

  • The trustor — the owner of the property, who transfers it to …
  • The trustee – the person who takes care of the property for the benefit of …
  • The beneficiary – the person or people who will eventually receive the property. 

If Susie forms a trust, she’ll be the trustor. Whomever she names to take care of her money — maybe a family member — will be the trustee. Because her kids will ultimately get the money, they’re the beneficiaries.

There are two types of trusts. A living trust is created while the trustor is still alive. A testamentary trust is created through a will after death. Some trusts can be changed (revocable) and some can’t (irrevocable).

Why use a trust?

We’ve already explored one reason to use a trust — to name a trustee who will take care of the money until the beneficiaries are responsible enough to manage it. A second common use of a trust is to bypass probate, the sometimes expensive and time-consuming process of court supervision. Finally, trusts are often used to bypass estate taxes.

Until Susie’s estate reaches a certain level, currently $5.25 million, she doesn’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. Whether it’s worth the cost to establish a trust to bypass probate depends on the laws where she lives, as well as other factors. She should consult an estate-planning lawyer for more advice about that. But she obviously has a desire to take care of her kids.

The problem with the trust solution

My mother died in 2004 and left her estate to my father. Before he passed away in 2009, he was facing the same problem as Susie. He wanted to leave his assets to me, my older sister and my niece. While he didn’t worry about leaving a lump sum to my sister and me, he was more hesitant when it came to my niece. She was an adult but, in his opinion, not yet responsible. 

So what he did was use a will that included a testamentary trust. Upon his death, part of his estate went to me, part to my sister and part went into a trust for my niece. My sister and I were named co-trustees, and we were given the authority to give the money to my niece whenever and however we deemed fit.

This was a good solution for my dad. For me, my sister and niece? Not so much.

When my father died, my sister and I stood between my niece and what she regarded as her rightful inheritance — not a pretty picture. I won’t go into detail, but you can probably imagine what it was like trying to juggle my father’s wishes and an impoverished niece who desperately wanted her inheritance.

I could see this problem coming, and begged my father not to leave my sister and me in this position. But his options were limited.

He could have named someone less personally involved to be the trustee — for example, a bank or other institution that provides trust services. But that introduced two new problems: First, the amount involved didn’t justify the expense of a corporate trustee. More importantly, my dad wanted trustees who knew my niece and could decide when she needed money, how much she needed and when it was appropriate to give it all to her.

He could also have simply stated in his testamentary trust the exact age at which my niece would get her inheritance. The problem with that, however, was that he couldn’t know what that age would be.

And that brings us back to Susie.

Susie asked for the answers to seemingly simple questions: “I don’t know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages?”

I don’t have the answer, Susie. If you lay out specific details, you could be making the wrong decision. If you do what my father did, you could be creating uncomfortable family gatherings.

So what do you do? The best you can. Hopefully you’ll be around long enough to get a better handle on what to do. Remember, as long as you’re alive, you can change your will and the terms of the trust. But all you can do now is take a stab at the ages and stages you think best reflects the maturity of your kids. Then, relax. You’ve done your best.

Got a money-related question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Ted Jones

    Great article! In Texas a basic Will can take advantage of the State’s simplified probate system to save thousands of dollars and a tremendous amount of time.

    • Melissa Greene

      Your article was very helpful, Stacy, especially your
      explanation of a will vs a trust. That has always confused me. I have been
      procrastinating for pretty much the same reason as Susie. I am a single,
      professional Mom with kids and a partner. My partner is like a father to my
      kids and we plan to marry one of these days. I am not wealthy but I do
      have savings and some land I inherited from my parents. And an ex-husband
      who must not ever be allowed to manage any of it for my kids. (They would see
      less of their inheritance than they see of their father.) Not only have I
      been procrastinating because I was confused between a will and the living trust
      you talked about, but I didn’t know how to set it up so that it would be held
      for college or until they are mature enough to manage it responsibly. I worry that one of my kids may not be headed
      for a traditional college which is fine but if life works out to where I am not
      here to guide him, how do I decide when he would get his share. How do I come
      up with various contingencies? How do all these contingencies get written
      into a will? I can’t even decide if I should get married because I don’t know
      if that will complicate the situation even more! (If I do get married
      without a will, would my kids or my partner get my assets if anything happens
      to me?)

      Which is why I am replying to you, Ted. You mentioned Texas and I live in Texas.
      I moved to here after my divorce. You mentioned a “basic” Texas
      with regard to Susie from the article and said a basic will can simplify
      probate and make it much less expensive. Sound great! To me, my situation seems
      even more complicated than Susie’s, though I don’t have as much in the way of
      assets. Yet, there are millions of other divorced parents and blended families so they must be
      doing something. But what, exactly? Who is a simple will actually for— someone who’s unmarried
      or still married to the other parent of their children? Someone
      who does not have much to leave their children? Susie had kids and assets but
      was unmarried, or so it seemed. Hopefully I’m wrong but it seems to me that if you have
      to come up with contingencies for when you kids can get the money or not and someone
      else has to be in charge of it and keep it from being squandered by an ex-spouse, then
      maybe it may not be basic. Am I just worrying too much and making this
      too complicated? I know people with blended families and the like who just used a basic
      will they got from TV and they seem fine with it but I don’t know if that is good enough for
      my situation. True or not? Would I even know if I did a TV will that was not actually good
      enough, or would my family discover after I was gone. Yes, I worry too much!
      Thank you for any advice you can give!

      • Ted Jones

        Melissa, all of the issues you have raised are not uncommon and an be addressed in the terms of a trust. Very few things are more flexible than a trust. Whether the trust should be set up within your Will or set up as a living trust depends on what state you live in. Your question about marriage also depends on what state you live in.

  • catty

    You can set an age …say 40…to receive the monies. The deciding factor would be they can not be unemployed for more than 2 months until they are 45 in any given year.. or they lose the benefit of the money and it goes to a charity of your choice……a job is a responsibility and if they can’t handle a job than they will not be able to handle money. If health issues factor into that unemployable time the year starts after there work return unless for a severe disability not of there doing.

  • Tom

    Whatever course you select, be sure to discuss things with the trustee or maybe have a nonbinding letter to the trustee explaining some of your thoughts and wishes. As a successor trustee for my aunt (never married, no children) I followed the trust to the letter but had no idea of her assets or bills. It was quite an exploration finding all that out. Some came into the trust yet other assets did not as they were survivorship with certain individuals. There was a bank named as a substitute trustee if no one accepted the job, but as noted in the article that can get expensive (just minimal legal work ran into about $1500 as it was). Even a fairly “simple” one can take well over a year to finalize so I’d suggest not putting any stipulations that could drag it out longer if you can avoid it.