A living trust (also known as a revocable or inter vivos trust) is a separate legal entity you create to own property, such as your home or investments. The trust is called a living trust because it's meant to function while you're alive. You control the property in the trust, and, whenever you wish, you can change the trust terms, transfer property in and out of the trust, or end the trust altogether.
Not everyone needs a living trust, but it can be used to accomplish various purposes. The primary function is typically to avoid probate. This is possible because property in a living trust is not included in the probate estate.
Depending on your situation and your state's laws, the probate process can be simple, easy, and inexpensive, or it can be relatively complex, resulting in delay and expense. This may be the case, for instance, if you own property in more than one state or in a foreign country, or have heirs that live overseas.
Further, probate takes time, and your property generally won't be distributed until the process is completed. A small family allowance is sometimes paid, but it may be insufficient to provide for a family's ongoing needs. Transferring property through a living trust provides for a quicker, almost immediate transfer of property to those who need it.
Probate can also interfere with the management of property like a closely held business or stock portfolio. Although your executor is responsible for managing the property until probate is completed, he or she may not have the expertise or authority to make significant management decisions, and the property may lose value. Transferring the property with a living trust can result in a smoother transition in management.
Finally, avoiding probate may be desirable if you're concerned about privacy. Probated documents (e.g., will, inventory) become a matter of public record. Generally, a trust document does not.
Caution: Although a living trust transfers property like a will, you should still also have a will because the trust will be unable to accomplish certain things that only a will can, such as naming an executor or a guardian for minor children.
Tip: There are other ways to avoid the probate process besides creating a living trust, such as titling property jointly.
Caution: Living trusts do not generally minimize estate taxes or protect property from future creditors or ex-spouses.