A Revocable Living Trust: In “Real People” Terms

Article by Beth Ann R. Lawson, Esq.

At a recent event, a young woman asked me to define a Revocable Living Trust (Trust) in “real people” terms rather than legal language. To do so, I used my children and my pets as real life examples to show how a Revocable Living Trust works. It doesn’t get more “real” than children and our pets.

When my children were small, I would leave them and my pets with my parents or other family caregiver for a few days while I traveled for business. I always left extensive written instructions along with medical cards and money to make sure the caregivers could act promptly and know exactly what to do in many different situations. A Revocable Living Trust is the formalized, more detailed and legally enforceable version of the scribbled notes left on the counter for the sitters.

A Trust captures the Trustmaker’s instructions to family and puts people in charge when you cannot personally act.  (Successor Trustees). The Trust tells them how and when to act and captures these instructions in writing with witnesses and a notarization to make them legally binding.

My notes to our sitters included directions on what to do if I was detained on the trip, was hospitalized or passed away. I included rules for feeding times, bed times, school times, and allowed events. I included restrictions on what not be do, curfews, allowances and allowable television shows. This 5-page document included the names of back-up family members who would act should something happen to us on a trip. It included medical information and doctor’s phone numbers. It included a signed form by me giving the caregiver the authority to take my child to the doctors.

I gave the doctors and the vets a call to tell them someone else may be bringing in the children or the pets. It was really a lot of work to do each time I left town. The problem with these informal instructions for the sitters is that they have no legal force. Your Revocable Living Trust has your instructions spelled out with legal clout.

The maker of a Revocable Living Trust, the Trustmaker (you), meet with your attorney to define your goals for yourself and your family. We then develop your Trust full of your instructions and rules to guide your family during your illness or after your death.

A Trust answers many questions for a family. Who takes care of The Trustmaker (You) during incapacity? Who takes care of the children after the death of a Trustmaker? Who has access to the money in the trust to keep paying bills and taxes? Who manages the money left to the children? Who takes care of the pets? At what age do the children gain access to the money? By answering these questions in a Trust, you just left legally enforceable instructions for your family for generations to come. It is a formal version of the 5-page list you left for your sitter on the kitchen counter with money and the insurance card.

The rules in your Trust govern the effective use of your resources for your protection. After you pass away, the Trust governs resources for the protection of your children and pets under the watchful eyes of people you name and trust implicitly (Successor Trustees or guardians).  Just like the money I left on the kitchen counter for our sitters, Trustees need access to money to keep your estate operating. Bills must be paid. Accounts with money, investments and real estate are often immediately funded to the trust during your life to make sure your Successor Trustee (the babysitter or pet sitter) can conduct your business when you cannot. A pet sitter, a caregiver and a Successor Trustee all need access to funds to continue managing the affairs of your life and estate. A Trust gives them that access. We also leave money to pay our sitter. “Trustees” are normally compensated and your Trust should set the rules for compensation.

When you are traveling, always leave instructions with a trusted individual as to where your Trust is located. When you have a Trust, it is important that the people you name to manage your trust know where to find it and how to act.

Now that I am a grandmother and my children are adults, I only deal with pet instructions. I leave the pet sitter with the Veterinarian’s phone number, feeding instructions, walk times, treats they get, etc. I also list who should come for the dogs should something happen to my husband and I while traveling.

Of course, I first ask the person named in the instructions about adopting our pets if we don’t make it home. It is never a good idea to “surprise” someone with a lifetime expectation of caring for your pet. Pre-arrange this and add a Pet Trust (direction on who gets the animal(s)) within your Revocable Living Trust with your instructions and allocate some money for the care of your beloved animals.

Unlike the notes on the kitchen counter for the weekend trip, the Trust works for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Trust holds written rules for your family and beneficiaries to follow at different times during your life and for your loved ones after you pass away. Unlike my written instructions for my pet sitter on the counter with money, a Trust is legally enforceable and can last for generations.

To summarize, instructions to both caregivers and pet sitters are very much like a Trust in that they both provide detailed instructions and information. Trusts give your instructions to specifically named people (Successor Trustees) about what to do if you become incapacitated or pass away. The Trust gives instructions about what to do with your house, money and custody of your pets. It gives someone, a Successor Trustee, the authority to act according to your directions.

The Trust can also sets limitations, restricting what a Successor Trustee cannot do in certain instances. It is always important to make sure your instructions are current with your life and the needs of your family as you age. The people you named as Successor Trustees, 10 years ago, may no longer be the people you would name as agents today.
Sure, the hastily written instructions with money and the insurance card is an easy way to make sure the weekend sitter has what they need to make it through 48 hours of caring for someone or something you love. A Revocable Living Trust helps your family and Successor Trustees make it through the rest of your life and the lives of your loved ones with legal protection and rules of operation. Don’t leave on your next trip without your Revocable Living Trust instructions in place!