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Making a Living Trust: Can You Do It Yourself?

Find out if you can make your own living trust, and how to get started.

Updated by , Attorney

If you've decided you want a living trust to avoid probate, how should you proceed? Do you need a lawyer, or can you make a living trust yourself? With a little education, most people can draw up a perfectly legal living trust for next to nothing. Read on to learn how living trusts help avoid probate, how to make a living trust, and whether you can make one yourself.

How Do Living Trusts Avoid Probate?

For many Americans, a significant goal of estate planning is to avoid probate. A revocable living trust, unlike a will, offers a fast, private, probate-free way to transfer one's property after death. Although a living trust is not a complete substitute for a will (it doesn't allow you to name a guardian for a child, for example), it is definitely a more efficient way to transfer property at death, especially large-ticket items such as a house.

How Much Does a Living Trust Cost?

Assuming you decide you want a revocable living trust, how much should you expect to pay? If you are willing to do it yourself, it will cost you about $30 for a book, or $100-250 for a service such as WillMaker & Trust. If you hire a lawyer to do the job for you, get ready to pay an average of between $1,000 and $2,000.

You may assume that paying thousands of dollars for the assistance of a professional means you'll receive good value. You get what you pay for, right? Maybe not. If you are willing to invest a couple of hours of your time using a top-quality do-it-yourself resource, you may end up with just as good a result.

How to Make a Living Trust

To understand why most lawyers charge too much for a living trust and why it is safe to do it yourself, it helps to know that a living trust is about as easy to prepare as a will. To draft a standard living trust—which is what most attorneys offer—you start with a lot of legal boilerplate (off-the-shelf legal language) and add the following information:

  • The name of the person creating the trust (called the grantor, settlor, or trustor). If it's your trust, that's you.
  • The name of the person who will manage the trust (the trustee). Again, if it's your trust, this is you. That's right, the same person creates it and controls it.
  • The name of the person who will take over as trustee and distribute property in the trust when the trustor dies or becomes incapacitated (the successor trustee). Most people choose a spouse, grown child, or close friend.
  • The names of the people who will receive the property in the trust (your beneficiaries, just as with a will).
  • The name of a person to manage any property left to young beneficiaries.

After the trust is drawn up, you sign it in front of a notary public.

Finally, to make the trust effective, all property to be distributed under its terms must be transferred into the name of the trustee using a deed or other standard transfer document.

When to Make a DIY Living Trust, and When to Use a Lawyer

If it's this easy, why not do it yourself? Many people do, quite successfully. (See this survey on people's experiences with do-it-yourself estate planning.)

But consider hiring a lawyer if you have questions about your particular situation or a thorny estate planning issue that a basic living trust just doesn't address. For example, you'll want to consult an attorney if:

  • You have a lot of debts
  • You're not sure what you own
  • You don't have someone you trust to name as successor trustee
  • You want to place conditions on your gifts (such as giving money to your nephew only if they graduate from college)
  • You anticipate family conflict over your gifts,
  • You live abroad or own property abroad, or
  • You might owe estate taxes.

But even if you do go the lawyer route, it's worth doing a little research on your own; it's a lot more cost-efficient than paying a professional to educate you about the basics.

Next Steps

Look over the state list below to learn more about living trusts in your state.

For help on choosing a good estate planning attorney, read How to Find an Excellent Lawyer. Or you can go to Nolo's Lawyer Directory for a list of estate planning lawyers in your geographical area (click on the lawyer's or law firm's profile to learn about a lawyer's experience and philosophy).

Make a Living Trust in Your State

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