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Why setting up a living trust may be wise, especially in California

Why setting up a living trust may be wise, especially in California
A living trust ensures your estate doesn't go through probate, which is an expensive and lengthy process in California. Shown here is Oak Park Cemetery in Claremont. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: Is there a minimum amount of assets required before a revocable living trust is advisable? I am retired but my wife is still working. If we do not include our 401(k) plans, our total liquid assets (my wife's monthly salary, my monthly Social Security benefit and my pension check) are below $100,000. We do not own a house or other real estate and do not have any major outstanding loans. We own our only car, a 2009 non-luxury vehicle.

Assuming we need a trust, do we still need to make out a will? If so, can we use a state-specific form online or just make out a handwritten will? Lastly, can a will be "until further notice" or do we have to update it each year? It should be obvious that we are trying to save expenses where we can.

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Answer: Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate, the court process that otherwise oversees the paying of creditors and distribution of someone's assets. (The sources of income you listed aren't considered assets, by the way, since those will cease upon your deaths and can't be transferred to other heirs.) Living trusts offer privacy, because probate is a public process, and can make it easier for a designated person to take over for you if you should become incapacitated.

There's no specific dollar amount of assets for which a living trust becomes a good idea. In many states, probate isn't a big deal, while in others — including California — probate is expensive enough that the cost of setting up a living trust can be worthwhile. Even in California, smaller estates (those under $150,000) can avoid probate or qualify for a streamlined process that can make living trusts unnecessary.

Those with larger estates may be able to avoid probate using other methods.

The money in your 401(k)s, for example, will pass directly to the beneficiaries you name. In many states, you also can name a beneficiary for a vehicle right on the registration form so your car could avoid probate. Some states also offer this "transfer on death" option for real estate.

"Plan Your Estate," an excellent primer from self-help legal publisher Nolo, details your options.

Living trusts typically replace the need for a will, although a lawyer likely would recommend creating a "pour-over" will to include any assets accidentally left out of the trust. If you don't have a living trust, you'll definitely need wills to outline how you want your property distributed.

You also should create powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances, so that someone you name can make decisions for you should you become incapacitated. These documents are probably more important than a will because they can determine your quality of life at the end of your days rather than just what happens to your stuff when you're beyond caring.

Do-it-yourself options are fine if your estate is small, simple and unlikely to be challenged by contentious heirs. Each state has specific requirements for making a legal will, which will be detailed in the software or online forms you use. You don't have to update a will yearly but it's a good idea to at least review your estate documents annually to see if any changes might be needed.

You won't owe gift taxes until you've given away more than $11 million in your lifetime above the $15,000-per-person annual limit.
You won't owe gift taxes until you've given away more than $11 million in your lifetime above the $15,000-per-person annual limit. (iStock)
Cash gift to daughter shouldn’t trigger fine

Dear Liz: I gave my daughter $30,000 in 2015. I was fined $5,000. Why? I had not talked with another daughter, who does my taxes, so I was not aware that I could give only $14,000. If I had known, I could have given her the money over two years. Why wouldn't they advise me as such?

Answer: It's not clear whom you mean by "they," but you need to have a chat with the daughter who does your taxes, because it's extremely unlikely you were fined by the IRS for your gift.

In 2015, you wouldn't owe gift taxes until you had given away more than $5 million in your lifetime above the $14,000-per-person annual limit. (That lifetime limit, by the way, has been raised to over $11 million, and the annual gift exclusion limit is now $15,000.)

If you had to pay an extra $5,000, it was for something else. Let's hope the tax-preparing daughter didn't decide to "fine" you for favoring your other child.

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.

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