The end of the calendar year (and the beginning of the following year) can be a great time for estate plan reviews. In addition to reviewing life-event changes, and their impact on your plan, this time is also an excellent opportunity to review your assets and ensure that all of the assets that should be transferred into your living trust are, in fact, funded. Whether they are existing or newly-purchased assets, now is always a good time to make certain that your trust is properly equipped to do the job you created it to do.
Revocable living trusts have the potential to be extremely useful and helpful tools serving a vital role in a complete estate plan. A living trust is a lot like a car. A car can do amazing things if it is properly prepared to operate and maintained. If you do not fill a vehicle with gasoline, oil, brake fluid or engine coolant, it doesn't matter how amazing your car is - it won't run. If you don't keep your car maintained, it may run perfectly at first but will eventually reach a point where it stops running right or maybe even malfunctions completely.
Your trust must be similarly prepared to do its job. While your car needs gasoline in it, your trust needs assets inside it to do its job. To maximize the benefits of your trust, both in terms of protecting your privacy along with avoiding delays and legal/court costs, you have to minimize the assets that go through probate. This means accomplishing all the tasks you need to do to transfer (or “fund”) your wealth into your trust. Your trust's distribution instructions can only govern assets that you've properly transferred to the trust's control. Your trust's probate-avoidance advantages only apply if the trust legally owns your assets so that the assets can remain outside your probate estate.
Do not misunderstand - you do not need to fund ALL of your assets into your trust. Indeed, there are certain assets for which it might be disadvantageous to fund them into your trust. Retirement accounts like 401k accounts and IRAs are an example. For these assets, of course, there are other ways to ensure they avoid probate as they have their own death beneficiary designations attached to them. For most assets, though, if your plan includes a living trust, that will be the vehicle you'll use for avoiding probate and protecting your privacy.
Given what an important task this is, it is important to make sure you've done it right and that it remains up to date. This is yet another reason to engage in routine estate planning “check-ups.” While your annual year-end estate plan reviews can allow you to assess what life event changes have occurred in your life recently (and what type of estate plan changes might be needed due to them,) it is also a great time to assess your assets and your trust funding. Have you bought any new assets this year? If so, have you completed the necessary steps to ensure that those assets are now transferred to the trust?
Have you sold anything? If yes, have you analyzed what affect this might have on your trust distributions? Perhaps you sold your Florida beachfront condo for cash. If your trust says that your condo went to your daughter, but also says that all cash accounts are to be split equally between your three children, then this sale has changed the nature of your distributions (your daughter saw a reduction in her inheritance as a result of the sale.) If that wasn't a goal of yours, you may want to consider making a matching change to your distribution scheme.