A "living" trust (also called an "inter vivos" trust) is simply a trust you create while you're alive. The beneficiaries you name in your living trust receive the trust property when you die. You could instead use a will, but wills must go through probate—the court process that oversees the transfer of your property to your beneficiaries.
Many people create a revocable living trust as part of their estate plan. You can modify or revoke (cancel) this type of trust at any time. Typically, you'll name yourself as the "trustee" of your trust. This means that while you're alive, you retain control of the trust and its property. In your trust document, you'll also name a "successor trustee" to take over and manage the trust after you die; this person will distribute the property in the trust to your beneficiaries. (If you create a shared living trust, as is often done by married couples, then your successor trustee would assume control after both spouses have died.)
In contrast, irrevocable trusts cannot be revoked or modified after they are signed. Irrevocable trusts can be useful tools for specific goals, like reducing taxes, but they require giving up ownership and control of trust property.
When you set up a living trust to transfer your property to your loved ones after your death, you can potentially save them time, hassle, and money. Property left through a will (rather than a living trust) might be tied up for months or even years in probate court, and could involve court costs and lawyers' fees. By contrast, property left through a trust can be distributed to your beneficiaries almost immediately, and often without the need for an attorney.
Some states have fully adopted a model law called the Uniform Probate Law to streamline the probate process. Unfortunately, North Carolina is not one of those states. On the other hand, North Carolina does offer simplified probate processes for "small" estates. Your inheritors can skip the probate process altogether and use a much simpler affidavit (sworn statement) to claim property if:
And regardless of the size of the estate, if the surviving spouse inherits everything, then your estate can use a separate probate shortcut, called "summary administration" in North Carolina. The summary administration process is essentially a fast-track version of regular probate.
If you think that the property in your estate will qualify for one of these simplified processes when you die, the probate process might be straightforward and relatively inexpensive, so you might not need to worry about making a living trust just to avoid probate.
Yes, you'll still need a will. This might seem confusing—isn't the point of a living trust to avoid needing a will? Yes, it is, and your will might never be used. But you should still write one, for one or both of the following reasons:
Probably not. Most people do not need to worry about federal estate taxes because the federal estate tax is levied only on estates worth close to $12 million. North Carolina does not collect its own state estate tax.
If you have an estate worth close to $12 million (or you and your spouse or partner have a combined estate of close to $24 million), you might be able to use a more complicated trust (such as an AB trust) to reduce or avoid federal estate taxes.
To make a living trust in North Carolina, you:
You can use WillMaker & Trust to make a living trust using your computer. It has a simple interview format that allows you to complete the trust at your own pace, and it gives you lots of legal and practical help along the way. Based on your responses, the program produces a living trust document customized for you and your situation. With WillMaker & Trust, you can also make a will, powers of attorney, health care directives, transfer on death deeds, and many other useful documents. Use it just for yourself or for your entire family.
For more on North Carolina estate planning issues, see North Carolina Estate Planning.