TRUSTS FOR CHILDREN
It is a parent’s job to raise and take care of their children. The question no one wants to think about is who would do that job if you were gone? Losing a parent is one of the hardest things emotionally a child can go through, but you can still take steps to provide for your children if you should die before they are grown. You can appoint a guardian in your will to raise your children, but you can also set up a trust to make sure the money is managed properly to provide for your children’s care.
A trust is like a basket. It is simply the vehicle for holding assets. The person who sets up the trust (the settlor) can customize the trust to handle things as she sees fit. She can name who will handle the money (the trustee), and name backup trustees in case the original trustee is unable to manage. The settlor can also name beneficiaries to the trust and decide what benefits they will receive from the trust. The settlor can also decide at what point the trust has served its purpose and will end, and when it ends who gets whatever assets may be left in the trust.
How to Spend the Money
The parent can make the trusts as strict, or as flexible as they like. Some parents choose to leave the trustee complete discretion. So if something like a trip to Europe for the child comes up, the trustee can choose to pay for it if they think it’s a good idea, or decline. Other times, the parents may say that the trust is only to be used for education, so if the same European trip came up, the trustee should pay for it only if it were deemed a study abroad educational expense.
Some parents may place conditions on what the child needs to do to inherit their share. They can say the child is entitled to inherit at age 25, or inherit at age 25 provided they have graduated from a state accredited college. If they do not graduate, they do not inherit.
The parent may say the money is to go to care for the family home so long as the youngest child is living in it, or it may simply lay out a general wish of how the settlor hopes the money will be used.
How to Hold the Money
Another question the settlor will have to decide is how the money is going to be “held.” If there is more than one child, the money may be divided into equal shares and each child has their own equal trust. When the child has used up the money in his own trust, it is gone and he cannot access his siblings’ trusts.
The other way is to set up a “Common Pot Trust” which puts all the money in one trust, and the spending on each child is based on need rather than on equivalency. In a common pot trust two beneficiaries may receive drastically different funding based on their needs. This is especially true for clients who have children born significant years apart and can help treat individual circumstances differently. There is no “primary” beneficiary so no child is required to receive any funds before or along with any other child.
Trusts are hard to think about in the abstract, so let’s look at an example:
The following illustration is for example purposes only:
Sally is a single mother, who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. She has four young children, Aiden (20), Becca (18), Carly (16), and Davey (4). Her main goal is to make sure her children are taken care of when she passes away. Her ex-husband, Matthew, is a good father, who Sally trusts to raise the children, but he is not good with money.
Sally doesn’t have much in assets when she passes away, but she did purchase a $500,000 life insurance policy for the kids when she got divorced, that she hopes will be used to care for her children’s wellbeing and education.
If She Does Not Set Up A Trust
If Sally names her minor children as beneficiaries of the Life Insurance Policy, the funds will be held by their legal guardian, and the children will have full access to their funds on their 18th birthday.
This means that Aiden and Becca would each inherit $125,000 immediately. Aiden takes a European vacation and buys a car. Becca uses some of the funds for college, but also pays for trips to the bar and shopping trips with her friends.
Carly and Davey’s share is held by their guardian, Matthew. Matthew uses the funds to care for the children, and there is some money left over when Carly turns 18, but not much. Davey’s share is spent before he is 18.
If She Sets Up Individual Funds
Sally names her sister as trustee for the funds, and sets up the trust with individual funds because she wants to treat her children “equally”. She says they can inherit when they turn 25.
Each child gets their own trust of $125,000. The trustee can only use funds from the child’s individual trust for their care and once they reach age 25 it is distributed to them.
Aiden is already in his third year of college when Sally passes. The trustee uses some of his trust to pay for his last year of college and helps with some incidental payments over the next few years but when he turns 25, he receives $100,000. He decides to take this money and go drink on a beach for a year.
Becca is just starting college, and decides she wants to go to Med school afterwards. The $125,000 is quickly spent on her undergraduate education and first year of medical school. She pays for the rest of medical school herself by going into debt, and there is nothing left to distribute when she turns 25.
Carly gets in a car accident when she is seventeen. Her trustee uses most of her funds to pay her medical bills and her rehabilitation funds. There are no funds left to help with her college.
Davey is the youngest. Over the years the trustee pays out so that he can have the same lifestyle his siblings had growing up, but the funds run out before he reaches 15.
Even though they each got equal shares of cash, equal doesn’t always mean fair. Davey was much younger than his siblings when his mother passed away, and the siblings all had mom’s support while she was alive. Sally may be rolling over in her grave at the thought of Aiden drinking his inheritance away on a beach while his siblings cannot afford to pay for their schooling or medical bills.
If She Sets Up a Common Pot Trust
If she set up the funds in a common pot trust, then the insurance money all goes into one pot of $500,000. The trustee has full discretion how to use this money. Sally can set up the direction or her wishes to the trustee to be as limited or as broad as she likes. Sally decides the primary use of the funds should be to raise Davey and for college educations. The trust will continue to provide for all four children until the youngest turns 25.
Aiden decides not to go to college. He buys a house and gets married but pays for everything himself, because the trust is intended to provide for education and Davey’s care.
Becca decides to go to college and then to med school. The trust pays $225,000 for her tuition and books over the years.
Carly decides to go to a year of culinary school. The trust pays $25,000 for her tuition.
Davey is only four when his mother passes away. The trustee pays an allowance to support Davey throughout his childhood, which costs about $210,000 until he turns 18. He decides to go to a local college with a scholarship. The trust pays $36,000 for this expense.
When Davey turns 25, there is only $4,000 left in the trust which is to be distributed equally to the four children. So they each get $1,000.
This may seem unfair to some. After all, Aiden only got $1,000 in inheritance from the trust, and Davey received $246,000. Becca and Carly both went to school for their careers but Becca received $200,000 more than Carly in tuition. On the other hand, if Sally’s main goals were to make sure Davey received the same opportunities as his siblings growing up and to provide for educational opportunities for her children, the trust accomplished it’s goal.
Which is better?
It depends on Sally’s goals. There is no one “right way” to make a trust because everyone has different goals for their children. Because of the customizable nature of trusts, saying “you have a trust” does not tell anyone what that trust does. Trusts are useful tools for accomplishing all sorts of different tasks. One very good use for a trust is for a parent to set one up to hold and manage money for young children if the parent should die before they are grown. This ensures that the parents can lay out rules and hopes for how the funds are to be used to care for their children, even after the parent is gone. Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney about how a trust could help care for your children.