Trusts -- Irrevocable Versus Revocable

March 2, 2012

A trust is often used as an estate planning tool in order to accomplish a variety of goals. At its most basic, a trust consists of a grantor (sometimes called a settlor, or trustor) who establishes the trust, a trustee who administers the trust assets, at least one beneficiary, and assets to fund the trust. Often, all three positions -- grantor, trustee and beneficiary -- can be held by the same person. Beyond that, trusts come in numerous forms that range in complexity; however, one simple distinction centers around whether the trust is revocable or irrevocable. Understanding some of the important features of the two options can help you decide which one is right for you.
All funded trusts, including the revocable trust, avoid probate. What this means is that the funds held in the trust are not required to pass through the often lengthy legal process that follows the death of the grantor, making the trust benefits available to the beneficiaries in a much more timely fashion. A much more important aspect of a revocable trust is that a revocable trust, as implied by the name, can be revoked, amended or modified by the grantor at any time. This feature can be very important if you feel that you may wish to change the beneficiaries or the specific terms of the trust at some future point. This flexibility makes a revocable trust an attractive option for most people.
An irrevocable trust cannot be revoked, amended or modified without court intervention in most states. Under most circumstances, the grantor may not be the trustee or the beneficiary.  All control and access is delivered to an independent trustee and a third party beneficiary.  What the grantor receives, however, for giving up the ability to control the trust is asset protection, probate avoidance, possible estate tax avoidance and potential income tax and, when the beneficiary is a charity, capital gains tax advantages.  These are highly complex strategies and must be entered into with appropriate caution.  The expertise of a qualified estate planning attorney should always be sought.

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