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Can I Create A Trust Without An Attorney?

Question: My wife and I have wills, durable power of attorney and health-care surrogate and power-of-attorney documents. After much study, I feel that we need to get a joint revocable living trust for our adult son with a backup will to avoid probate on our properties and taxable investments. I attempted that with an attorney but it was not a good experience and I did not proceed. Can we do it on our own?

Answer: First, good call on setting up a revocable living trust, which isn’t usually subject to “probate” — the weeks (and sometimes, months) after death it takes to validate a will and resolve claims against your estate before assets can be distributed. That kind of trust puts your assets in the hands of a trustee — which should still be you for now. (Otherwise, whoever you name as trustee has the power to sell property and make other big financial decisions regarding your assets.) Living trusts typically include a successor trustee, and instructions on how to distribute the assets upon your passing. The “revocable” means those setting up the trust can dissolve or change it.

Creating a living trust is also easy to do on your own, says attorney Denis Clifford, author of “Make Your Own Living Trust” and a contributor to self-help legal site Nolo.com. Prices to set up a living trust at legal documentation sites like LegalZoom and Nolo start at $249 and $89, respectively. Some software for creating wills includes living trusts as an option. But while the paperwork is fairly simple, it’s the legwork — transferring assets to the living trust, pursuant to state law, and getting everything notarized — that can be harder. Make sure that whatever software or service you use comes with detailed instructions, Clifford says. And don’t worry: most attorneys and estate planners will be happy to review the paperwork now to make sure it’s air-tight, and assist the beneficiaries if needed later.

But the do-it-yourself route isn’t always the best option, Clifford says. Consumers who have more than $5 million in assets — enough to incur estate tax — should consult an attorney to set up their trust. So should those who want a complex trust set up, he says, such as one that skips generations or requires heirs to meet a number of conditions.


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