While reading a recent edition of O Magazine, I came across Suze Orman’s monthly column. For those who don’t know, Ms. Orman is a financial expert and has written many books on financial prosperity. She was a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show and now has her own show on Oprah’s network. The column addressed how to be smart about your assets by protecting your estate from unnecessary costs and delays when you pass away. And what was her suggestion to achieve this peace of mind? A trust.
For most Canadians, owning property in a trust is a new concept. They have never thought of holding property this way, and when they hear about all of the benefits, they have a number of reactions. Some love the idea and start to question why their Canadian estates aren’t organized in the way we suggest that their U.S. estate be arranged. Some are less enamored by the concept of a trust and worry that the trust will cause complications in connection with the purchase or may scare off the seller. I assure them that this won’t be the case. I explain that using a trust to hold U.S. assets is not something we recommend to solely to Canadians, but that this is the recommended approach for Americans as well. And to back me up on this, like I do with so many things, I quote Oprah. Ok, maybe in this case, it is not Oprah directly, but Oprah’s trusted advisor, Suze Orman.
I find Ms. Orman’s article compelling because it addresses a key myth when it comes to the way trusts are viewed in pop culture: that they are useful only for the wealthy, as vehicles for holding and controlling family money. This assumption can largely be blamed on the term “trust fund” and its use in TV shows and movies depicting a world of excess. That term has penetrated our collective vernacular and has made trusts synonymous with privilege.
The truth is that trusts can be more important for those of us who are not wealthy, as the costs of settling an estate without a trust in place are more painful when paid by those who have less to spare. Just to give you an idea of what I mean, probate costs in the U.S. can run between 3 and 5 percent of the value of the U.S. property depending on the state. Further, should a property owner not pass away, but become incapacitated instead, the cost of a guardianship procedure or a conservatorship to deal with the issue can cost about $10,000. You can see how the beneficiaries of those leaving less disposable funds in their estate will be even harder pressed to deal with the financial strain that such events can cause. Trusts are often the solution as they simply lessen cost and hassle on death or incapacity.
Usually clients feel comforted to know that trusts are highly recommended for both Canadians (a Cross Border Trust) and Americans (a Revocable Living Trust) as smart ways to hold U.S. real estate by experts that we trust such as Ms. Orman. I mean, a blessing from one of Oprah’s messengers! What could be better?
For more information, see one of Suze Orman’s articles on revocable living trusts here.
Bonnie L. Altro is a partner at Altro & Associates, LLP. Her practice focuses on real estate closings, U.S. probate and cross border tax and estate planning.