A 'poor man's trust' may be a poor estate plan

Relying on only a will and transfer-on-death accounts may end up causing problems for heirs. Above, Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, Calif. (Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: I am 85 and my wife is 76. We have a house free of mortgage worth about $1 million. We have market investments above $4 million and life insurance of $1 million. We do not have a trust, just a will. Our financial advisor says that we do not need a trust because we have named both of our grown children as beneficiaries on all of our accounts and on the deed to our house. Please advise us if a trust is needed in our situation or if we are fine the way things are set up.

Answer: If your financial advisor is an estate-planning attorney, he or she may be correct. Otherwise, you'd be smart to seek out a lawyer experienced in these matters to review what you've done.


Naming beneficiaries on financial accounts, and on deeds in states that allow that, can allow those assets to pass to heirs without going through probate. So-called transfer-on-death accounts and deeds are sometimes called "the poor man's trust." You're far from poor, though, and a living trust may be a better option for distributing your wealth because there are many ways the current arrangement could go wrong.

The surviving spouse, for example, could change the beneficiaries. You both may be of sound mind now, but there's no guarantee you'll remain so. Fraud experts can tell story after story of caregivers, relatives, friends, advisors and romantic interests persuading a vulnerable older person to change beneficiaries in favor of the interloper. A living trust that bypasses probate can include language to prevent your children from being completely disinherited.

Another potential problem: paying funeral costs and the expenses of settling the estate. If everything does go to the kids at the survivor's death, the executor may have to go after them to return some of the money.

This column isn't long enough to detail all the other ways transfer-on-death arrangements can misfire, so you'll want to make an appointment with an experienced estate-planning attorney soon.

Building an emergency fund beats out building credit

Dear Liz: I am trying to raise my credit scores, which are very low. I have one negative mark on my account from a paid collection and I just got my first secured credit card. I have a bit of extra money right now and I'm wondering what's the best way to use it to raise my scores. Should I get another secured credit card from a different issuer, get a secured 12-month loan through my financial institution or something else?

Answer: People rebuilding their credit often overlook the importance of an emergency fund. Having even a small amount of savings can keep a financial setback, such as a decrease in income or an unexpected expense, from causing you to miss a payment and undoing all your efforts to boost your scores. You can start with just a few hundred dollars and slowly build the fund over time.

Adding an installment loan can assist with building credit as well, but a secured loan may not be the best option if money is tight. The cash you deposit with the lender as collateral for the loan won't be available again until you pay off the loan. Consider instead a credit-builder loan, in which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit to be claimed when you've finished making the monthly payments, typically after one year. That means you can keep the cash you already have for emergencies. Credit-builder loans are available from some credit unions and Self Lender, an online company.

You'll want to make sure both the credit card issuer and the installment loan lender are reporting your payments to the three credit bureaus. If your accounts don't show up on your credit reports, they're not helping to build your scores.

In addition to making payments on time, you'll want to avoid using too much of the available credit on the card. There's no bright line for how much to charge, but typically 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better and 10% or less is best. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay it off in full every month because there's no advantage to carrying a balance.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.