Category: Estate Planning

Simple Trusts vs. Complex Trusts

Young couple consults with a financial advisor about trusts

A trust can be a useful estate planning tool, in addition to a will. You can use a trust to remove assets from probate, potentially minimize estate and gift taxes and ensure that assets are managed on behalf of beneficiaries according to your wishes. There are different types of trusts you can establish and some are more specialized than others. Knowing how these broad categories of trusts compare can help with choosing the right option. When it comes to estate planning, including whether to create a trust, a financial advisor can help you make the most informed decision possible.

What Is a Trust?

Infant holding hand of father

A trust is a type of legal entity that can be created in accordance with your state laws to manage your assets. The person who creates a trust is called a grantor and they have the right to transfer assets into the trust. They can also choose one or more trustees to oversee the trust and manage the assets within it.

The trustee’s job is to manage assets according to the grantor’s specifications on behalf of one or more trust beneficiaries. For example, you might set up a trust to hold assets that you want to be distributed among your three children when you pass away. Or you might choose your favorite charitable organization to be a beneficiary of your trust.

There are many different kinds of trusts and they can be categorized in different ways. For instance, a revocable trust can be changed during the grantor’s lifetime. If you have this type of trust and you want to add assets to it or change the beneficiaries, you can do so while you’re still living. An irrevocable trust, on the other hand, involves a permanent transfer of assets.

Trusts can also be categorized as grantor or non-grantor. In a grantor trust, the trust creator retains certain powers over the trust, including rights to the trust’s assets and income. Trust assets may be included in the trust creator’s estate when they pass away. With a non-grantor trust the trust creator has no interest or control over trust assets. Trust assets are generally excluded from the trust creator’s estate at their death.

Benefits of Trusts in Estate Planning

Trusts can be used inside an estate plan to perform a number of functions. For example, you might create a trust to:

  • Pass on specific assets to your chosen beneficiaries
  • Ensure that certain assets aren’t subject to the probate process
  • Manage estate and gift tax liability
  • Protect assets from creditors
  • Ensure that a special needs beneficiary is cared for when you’re gone
  • Receive the proceeds of a life insurance policy when you pass away

Some of these scenarios may call for a simple trust, while others may require a more specialized trust. One thing that’s important to keep in mind is how each one is treated for tax purposes when creating a simple vs. complex trust.

Simple Trust, Explained

A simple trust is a type of non-grantor trust. To be classified as a simple trust, it must meet certain criteria set by the IRS. Specifically, a simple trust:

  • Must distribute income earned on trust assets to beneficiaries annually
  • Make no principal distributions
  • Make no distributions to charity

With this type of trust, the trust income is considered taxable to the beneficiaries. That’s true even if they don’t withdraw income from the trust. The trust reports income to the IRS annually and it’s allowed to take a deduction for any amounts distributed to beneficiaries. The trust itself is required to pay capital gains tax on earnings.

Complex Trust, Explained

A complex trust also has certain criteria it must meet. In order for a trust to be complex, it must do one of the following each year:

  • Refrain from distributing all of its income to trust beneficiaries
  • Distribute some or all of the principal assets in the trust to beneficiaries
  • Make distributions to charitable organizations

Any trust that doesn’t meet the guidelines to qualify as a simple trust is considered to be a complex trust. Complex trusts can take deductions when computing taxable income for the year. This deduction is equal to the amount of any income the trust is required to distribute for the year.

There are also some other rules to keep in mind with complex trusts. First, no principal can be distributed unless all income has been distributed for the year first. Ordinary income takes first place in the distribution line ahead of dividends and dividends have to be distributed ahead of capital gains. Once those conditions are met, then the principal can be distributed. And all distributions have to be equitable for all trust beneficiaries who are receiving them.

Simple vs. Complex Trust: Which Is Better?

When it comes to simple and complex trusts, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. The type of trust that ultimately works best for you can hinge on what you need the trust to do for you.

A simple trust offers the advantage of being fairly straightforward when it comes to how assets and income can be distributed and how those distributions are taxed. A complex trust, on the other hand, could offer more flexibility in terms of estate planning if you have a sizable estate or numerous beneficiaries.

When comparing trust options, consider whether you want to retain control or an interest in the assets that are transferred to it. If you choose a simple or complex trust, you’re choosing a non-grantor trust which means you’ll no longer have an interest in the trust assets. Talking to an estate planning attorney or trust professional can help you decide which type of trust may work best for your financial situation.

The Bottom Line

Helping hand concept picture

The main difference between a simple vs. complex trust lies in how income and assets are distributed and how those distributions are taxed. Whether it makes sense to establish a simple vs. complex trust can depend on the size of your estate, the nature of the assets you want to include and your wishes for managing those assets. It’s important to understand the tax rules before creating either type of trust as well as how a trust fits into your larger estate plan.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about whether it makes sense to use a trust to plan ahead for the distribution of assets or to manage estate and gift taxes. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with a financial advisor in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • While trusts can offer numerous benefits, creating one doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t also need a last will and testament. You can use a will to distribute assets that you don’t want to include in a trust. Or you could create a pour-over will to transfer assets into a trust.

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Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning

Three generations of one familyWhen creating an estate plan, one of the most basic documents you may wish to include is a will. If you have a more complicated estate, you might also need to have a trust in place. Both a will and a trust can specify how you want assets distributed among your beneficiaries. When making those decisions, it’s important to distinguish between per stirpes and per capita distributions. These are two terms you’re likely to come across when shaping your estate plan. Here’s a closer look at what per stirpes vs. per capita means.

Per Stirpes, Explained

If you’ve never heard the term per stirpes before, it’s a Latin phrase that translates to “by branch” or “by class.” When this term is applied to estate planning, it refers to the equal distribution of assets among the different branches of a family and their surviving descendants.

A per stirpes designation allows the descendants of a beneficiary to keep inherited assets within that branch of their family, even if the original beneficiary passes away. Those assets would be equally divided between the survivors.

Here’s an example of how per stirpes distributions work for estate planning. Say that you draft a will in which you designate your adult son and daughter as beneficiaries. You opt to leave your estate to them, per stirpes.

If you pass away before both of your children, then they could each claim a half share of your estate under the terms of your will. Now, assume that each of your children has two children of their own and your son passes away before you do. In that scenario, your daughter would still inherit a half share of the estate. But your son’s children would split his half of your estate, inheriting a quarter share each.

Per stirpes distributions essentially create a trickle-down effect, in which assets can be passed on to future generations if a primary beneficiary passes away. A general rule of thumb is that the flow of assets down occurs through direct descendants, rather than spouses. So, if your son were married, his children would be eligible to inherit his share of your estate, not his wife.

Per Capita, Explained

Older couple signs a will

Per capita is also a Latin term which means “by head.” When you use a per capita distribution method for estate planning, any assets you have would pass equally to the beneficiaries are still living at the time you pass away. If you’re writing a will or trust as part of your estate plan, that could include the specific beneficiaries you name as well as their descendants.

So again, say that you have a son and a daughter who each have two children. These are the only beneficiaries you plan to include in your will. Under a per capita distribution, instead of your son and daughter receiving a half share of your estate, they and your four grandchildren would each receive a one-sixth share of your assets. Those share portions would adjust accordingly if one of your children or grandchildren were to pass away before you.

Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita: Which Is Better?

Whether it makes sense to use a per stirpes or per capita distribution in your estate plan can depend largely on how you want your assets to be distributed after you’re gone. It helps to consider the pros and cons of each option.

Per Stirpes Pros:

  • Allows you to keep asset distributions within the same branch of the family
  • Eliminates the need to amend or update wills and trusts when a child is born to one of your beneficiaries or a beneficiary passes away
  • Can help to minimize the potential for infighting among beneficiaries since asset distribution takes a linear approach

Per Stirpes Cons:

  • It’s possible an unwanted person could take control of your assets (i.e., the spouse of one of your children if he or she is managing assets on behalf of a minor child)

Per Capita Pros:

  • You can specify exactly who you want to name as beneficiaries and receive part of your estate
  • Assets are distributed equally among beneficiaries, based on the value of your estate at the time you pass away
  • You can use this designation to pass on assets outside of a will, such as a 401(k) or IRA

Per Capita Cons:

  • Per capita distributions could trigger generation-skipping tax for grandchildren or other descendants who inherit part of your estate

Deciding whether it makes more sense to go with per stirpes vs. per capita distributions can ultimately depend on your personal preferences. Per stirpes distribution is typically used in family settings when you want to ensure that individual branches of the family will benefit from your estate. On the other hand, per capita distribution gives you control over which individuals or group of individuals are included as beneficiaries.

Review Beneficiary Designations Periodically

Multi-generational family

If you have a will and/or a trust, you may have named your beneficiaries. But it’s possible that you may want to change those designations at some point. If you named your son and his wife in your will, for example, but they’ve since gotten divorced you may want to update the will with a codicil to exclude his ex-wife. It’s also helpful to check the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, investment accounts and life insurance policies after a major life change.

For example, if you get divorced then you may not want your spouse to be the beneficiary of your retirement accounts. Or if they pass away before you, you may want to update your beneficiary designations to your children or grandchildren.

The Bottom Line

Per stirpes and per capita distribution rules can help you decide what happens to your assets after you pass away. But they both work very differently. Understanding the implications of each one for your beneficiaries, including how they may be affected from a tax perspective, can help you decide which course to take.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to get started with estate planning and what per stirpes vs. per capita distributions might mean for your heirs. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect, within minutes, with a professional advisor in your local area. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • While it’s always a good idea to consult with a financial advisor about estate planning, you can take a do-it-yourself approach to writing a will by doing it online. Here’s what you need to know about digital DIY will writing.

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An Overview of Filial Responsibility Laws

Father in a wheelchair and son outsideTaking care of aging parents is something you may need to plan for, especially if you think one or both of them might need long-term care. One thing you may not know is that some states have filial responsibility laws that require adult children to help financially with the cost of nursing home care. Whether these laws affect you or not depends largely on where you live and what financial resources your parents have to cover long-term care. But it’s important to understand how these laws work to avoid any financial surprises as your parents age.

Filial Responsibility Laws, Definition

Filial responsibility laws are legal rules that hold adult children financially responsible for their parents’ medical care when parents are unable to pay. More than half of U.S. states have some type of filial support or responsibility law, including:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Puerto Rico also has laws regarding filial responsibility. Broadly speaking, these laws require adult children to help pay for things like medical care and basic needs when a parent is impoverished. But the way the laws are applied can vary from state to state. For example, some states may include mental health treatment as a situation requiring children to pay while others don’t. States can also place time limitations on how long adult children are required to pay.

When Do Filial Responsibility Laws Apply?

If you live in a state that has filial responsibility guidelines on the books, it’s important to understand when those laws can be applied.

Generally, you may have an obligation to pay for your parents’ medical care if all of the following apply:

  • One or both parents are receiving some type of state government-sponsored financial support to help pay for food, housing, utilities or other expenses
  • One or both parents has nursing home bills they can’t pay
  • One or both parents qualifies for indigent status, which means their Social Security benefits don’t cover their expenses
  • One or both parents are ineligible for Medicaid help to pay for long-term care
  • It’s established that you have the ability to pay outstanding nursing home bills

If you live in a state with filial responsibility laws, it’s possible that the nursing home providing care to one or both of your parents could come after you personally to collect on any outstanding bills owed. This means the nursing home would have to sue you in small claims court.

If the lawsuit is successful, the nursing home would then be able to take additional collection actions against you. That might include garnishing your wages or levying your bank account, depending on what your state allows.

Whether you’re actually subject to any of those actions or a lawsuit depends on whether the nursing home or care provider believes that you have the ability to pay. If you’re sued by a nursing home, you may be able to avoid further collection actions if you can show that because of your income, liabilities or other circumstances, you’re not able to pay any medical bills owed by your parents.

Filial Responsibility Laws and Medicaid

Senior care living areaWhile Medicare does not pay for long-term care expenses, Medicaid can. Medicaid eligibility guidelines vary from state to state but generally, aging seniors need to be income- and asset-eligible to qualify. If your aging parents are able to get Medicaid to help pay for long-term care, then filial responsibility laws don’t apply. Instead, Medicaid can paid for long-term care costs.

There is, however, a potential wrinkle to be aware of. Medicaid estate recovery laws allow nursing homes and long-term care providers to seek reimbursement for long-term care costs from the deceased person’s estate. Specifically, if your parents transferred assets to a trust then your state’s Medicaid program may be able to recover funds from the trust.

You wouldn’t have to worry about being sued personally in that case. But if your parents used a trust as part of their estate plan, any Medicaid recovery efforts could shrink the pool of assets you stand to inherit.

Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning and Long-Term Care

If you live in a state with filial responsibility laws (or even if you don’t), it’s important to have an ongoing conversation with your parents about estate planning, end-of-life care and where that fits into your financial plans.

You can start with the basics and discuss what kind of care your parents expect to need and who they want to provide it. For example, they may want or expect you to care for them in your home or be allowed to stay in their own home with the help of a nursing aide. If that’s the case, it’s important to discuss whether that’s feasible financially.

If you believe that a nursing home stay is likely then you may want to talk to them about purchasing long-term care insurance or a hybrid life insurance policy that includes long-term care coverage. A hybrid policy can help pay for long-term care if needed and leave a death benefit for you (and your siblings if you have them) if your parents don’t require nursing home care.

Speaking of siblings, you may also want to discuss shared responsibility for caregiving, financial or otherwise, if you have brothers and sisters. This can help prevent resentment from arising later if one of you is taking on more of the financial or emotional burdens associated with caring for aging parents.

If your parents took out a reverse mortgage to provide income in retirement, it’s also important to discuss the implications of moving to a nursing home. Reverse mortgages generally must be repaid in full if long-term care means moving out of the home. In that instance, you may have to sell the home to repay a reverse mortgage.

The Bottom Line

elderly woman in a wheelchair outsideFilial responsibility laws could hold you responsible for your parents’ medical bills if they’re unable to pay what’s owed. If you live in a state that has these laws, it’s important to know when you may be subject to them. Helping your parents to plan ahead financially for long-term needs can help reduce the possibility of you being on the hook for nursing care costs unexpectedly.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about what filial responsibility laws could mean for you if you live in a state that enforces them. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be a complicated process. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect, in just minutes, with professional advisors in your local area. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • When discussing financial planning with your parents, there are other things you may want to cover in addition to long-term care. For example, you might ask whether they’ve drafted a will yet or if they think they may need a trust for Medicaid planning. Helping them to draft an advance healthcare directive and a power of attorney can ensure that you or another family member has the authority to make medical and financial decisions on your parents’ behalf if they’re unable to do so.

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