What Do I Put In a Living Trust?

By Liza Weiman Hanks
NABBW’s Estate Planning Expert

Dear Liza: I am trying to prepare a living trust on behalf of my father. He owns his home and vehicles outright and also has two bank accounts. I am the POD beneficiary of all of his accounts, as well as being a secondary signer on his checking and savings accounts. My confusion comes from not knowing what assets should be put in the living trust. Should it just be the home, since that has the highest value? Or should the cars and bank accounts also be included? Or can everything but the house be designated in the pour-over will that I also intend to create?

Your father’s living trust has just one purpose: to allow his estate to avoid probate upon his death. If your father’s assets are owned by the trust, not by him, when he dies, then his estate won’t need to go through probate. Not all items are subject to probate, though: retirement accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts with designated beneficiaries (that’s what a POD account is), go directly to the named beneficiary. Cars can be transferred via the DMV, and so don’t need to go through probate either. So, for your Dad, that leaves his house. You should transfer legal ownership of the house to his trust by filing a trust transfer deed with the county. When you record the deed, you’ll also need to file a Preliminary Change of Ownership Form (PCOR). This form tells the county assessor what kind of transfer just happened; the assessor wants to know if they can raise property taxes on that property, which they can’t, because a transfer to or from a living trust is NOT a change of ownership under Proposition 13. That pour-over Will is just a backup for your Dad. If he doesn’t transfer his house to the trust, and then dies, the Will says transfer whatever property he owned at death to this trust (that’s the pour-over part). But, if the value of that property is more than $150,000, you’ll need to go through probate to make the transfer. Put another way, the Will makes sure that all of your father’s assets get distributed as directed by the trust, but it won’t help his estate avoid probate first.

Liza Weiman Hanks is an attorney who specializes in estate planning for families of all ages. She is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has also served as an instructor at the Santa Clara University Law School and practiced with the state of California and a prestigious Silicon Valley firm. Liza is also the author of The Mom\’s Guide to Wills and Estate Planning and The Trustee\’s Legal Companion. She lives with her family in Campbell, California.