Every few weeks, you're probably receiving mail or information on the benefits of "living trusts." Living trusts are more popular than ever mostly because it is undisputable that a thoughtful, well-written living trust will save time and money. (As a word of caution, however, please be aware that many "free seminars" and "low cost estate plans" are not prepared by a local attorney.)

A living trust is an arrangement you create during your lifetime to provide for yourself and for your beneficiaries — the people you have chosen to receive your estate — after you pass on. It is a contract, an agreement, between you, as the owner of an asset, and someone referred to as "the Trustee." The trustee will be entrusted with your property as you direct, and for that reason, a living trust has flexibility that can work very well with your overall estate plans. Though there are many advantages to using this estate planning tool, it is not a substitute for a will.

Reduction of probate costs. Although you can enjoy the use of the assets you place in a trust during your lifetime, a living trust removes those assets from your estate for probate purposes. Therefore, you save the probate and administration costs you would incur if those same assets were distributed by the terms of your will.

Speedy distribution of trust assets. By establishing a living trust during your lifetime, you are setting up a method of managing and distributing your assets. Because a living trust escapes the probate process, the plan of distribution you describe is set in motion immediately at your death. There are none of the delays that occur under distribution by will.

Flexibility of planning. Another advantage of a living trust is the overall flexibility it provides. Most living trusts are revocable. This gives you the freedom to amend, add to or even completely revoke the trust agreement as you wish.

Freedom of control. Living trusts give you the freedom to name both the beneficiaries and the trustee. Most likely you will name yourself as the trustee during your lifetime and maintain the right to appoint and select successor trustees and beneficiaries. You also control the income and principal and how much of it you wish to use during your lifetime.

Investment management. You may choose to appoint a professional trustee such as a bank trust department or trust institution; some charitable organizations also will serve as trustees. This frees you from the worry of the day-to-day management of assets, yet you still may direct investment goals, including instructing your trustee to change investment strategies.

If you wish, you can give your trustee broad powers and allow the trustee to make the decisions, do all the paperwork and collect the dividends and interest and credit them properly. You would receive periodic and detailed accounting statements, including year-end data for tax purposes. This means you could travel extensively, knowing that your trustee would be managing all the details of your trust assets. Should you suffer a prolonged illness, your trustee could even pay your medical and household bills.

Confidential trust terms. One of the most favorable aspects of a living trust is the privacy it allows. Recent laws have changed so that when the trustor/property owner passes on, their heirs-at-law will be entitled to copies of the living trust.

Tax savings. A living trust may be drafted to make the most of estate tax advantages afforded under federal law. This is especially true of married couples considered to have considerable wealth — over a $1,000,000.

A living trust generally is not a stand-alone document. It is advisable to have a pour-over will since it is often difficult to get every asset into a trust.

During our initial consultations, we will explore your particular needs and wishes. We act as a sounding-board for your ideas, and working toward a sound plan to protect you, first and foremost, and your legacy, after your life is over.