A Guide to the Various Types of Trusts and Their Purposes

Discover various types of trusts, their benefits, and how to choose the right one for your needs in our comprehensive guide on trusts.


When it comes to managing your assets and ensuring their smooth transition to your loved ones, understanding the types of trusts available is crucial. Trusts are powerful tools often used in estate planning to manage, allocate, and protect assets. Here’s a quick snapshot:

  • Living Trusts: Created while the grantor is still alive.
  • Testamentary Trusts: Established upon the grantor’s death.
  • Revocable Trusts: Flexible and can be altered during the grantor’s lifetime.
  • Irrevocable Trusts: Fixed and cannot be changed once established.

Trusts can bypass probate, offer tax benefits, and provide asset protection, making them essential for anyone with assets, property, or dependents.

Hi, I’m John F. Pace, CPA. With over 40 years of experience in trust and estate administration, I’ve guided countless clients in choosing the right types of trusts to secure their legacy and protect their loved ones. This article will help you navigate the complex landscape of trusts to find the best fit for your needs.

Types of Trusts Infographic: Living, Testamentary, Revocable, Irrevocable; comparison of creation time, flexibility, and key benefits. - types of trusts infographic pillar-4-steps

Now, let’s dive into the basics and significance of trusts.

Understanding the Basics of Trusts

Trusts are legal tools that help manage and protect assets for individuals and families. They can offer significant benefits, like avoiding probate, reducing taxes, and ensuring your assets are distributed according to your wishes. But what exactly is a trust, and who are the key players involved?

Trust Definition

A trust is a legal arrangement where one party transfers assets to another party to manage for the benefit of a third party. This structure helps in controlling how assets are handled and distributed, both during the grantor’s lifetime and after their death.

Key Parties Involved

There are three main roles in any trust:

  • Grantor: Also known as the trustor or settlor, the grantor is the person who creates the trust and transfers their assets into it. For example, if Jane Doe sets up a trust to manage her estate, she is the grantor.

  • Trustee: The trustee is the individual or institution responsible for managing the trust’s assets according to the grantor’s instructions. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. This role can be filled by a trusted family member, a friend, or a professional entity like a bank or trust company.

  • Beneficiary: The beneficiary is the person or people who will receive the benefits from the trust. This could be income, property, or other assets specified by the grantor. For instance, Jane Doe’s children might be the beneficiaries of her trust.

Trust Assets

Trusts can hold a variety of assets, making them versatile tools for estate planning. Common assets include:

  • Cash
  • Real estate
  • Investments (stocks, bonds)
  • Personal property (art, jewelry)

These assets are transferred into the trust and managed by the trustee for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

Legal Framework

Trusts operate under a specific legal framework that varies by jurisdiction but generally includes:

  • Trust Documents: These are the legal papers that outline the trust’s terms, the duties of the trustee, and the rights of the beneficiaries. These documents are crucial as they dictate how the trust will function.

  • Fiduciary Duty: Trustees are legally obligated to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries, managing the trust assets prudently and faithfully according to the trust’s terms.

  • Tax Laws: Trusts have unique tax implications. Some trusts can reduce estate taxes or offer other tax benefits. For example, an irrevocable life insurance trust can remove life insurance proceeds from the taxable estate, potentially saving significant amounts in estate taxes.

Understanding these basics helps in recognizing the flexibility and protection that trusts offer. They are not just tools for the wealthy but can be a strategic part of financial planning for many people, ensuring that assets are managed and distributed according to specific wishes and conditions.

Next, let’s explore the different types of trusts and how they can serve various purposes.

Types of Trusts and Their Functions

Trusts are versatile tools in estate planning, providing various benefits and flexibility. Below, we’ll explore the primary types of trusts: Living Trusts, Testamentary Trusts, Revocable Trusts, and Irrevocable Trusts.

Living Trusts

A Living Trust, also known as an inter vivos trust, is created while the grantor is still alive. This type of trust allows the grantor to manage their assets during their lifetime and specify how they should be distributed after death.

Purpose: The main goal of a living trust is to avoid probate, which can be a lengthy and costly process. It also provides privacy since the distribution of assets does not become public record.

Example: Imagine a grandfather who wants his grandchildren to inherit his estate without going through the court system. By setting up a living trust, he ensures that his assets will be transferred directly to his grandchildren upon his passing, bypassing probate.

Testamentary Trusts

A Testamentary Trust is established through a person’s will and becomes effective upon their death. Unlike living trusts, testamentary trusts do go through probate.

Purpose: These trusts are often used to ensure that assets are managed and distributed according to specific instructions, such as providing for minor children or a spouse.

Example: A mother wants to ensure her children are financially supported but believes they are too young to handle a large inheritance. She sets up a testamentary trust in her will, specifying that the funds be used for their education and living expenses until they reach a certain age.

Revocable Trusts

Revocable Trusts, sometimes referred to as living trusts, can be altered or revoked by the grantor at any time during their lifetime. This flexibility allows the grantor to adapt the trust to changing circumstances.

Purpose: The primary purpose of a revocable trust is to maintain control over the assets while alive and to provide a smooth transition of asset management upon death, avoiding probate.

Example: A couple sets up a revocable trust to manage their assets. If they decide to sell a property or change the beneficiaries, they can do so easily without creating a new trust.

Irrevocable Trusts

Irrevocable Trusts cannot be modified or terminated without the consent of the beneficiaries. Once established, the grantor relinquishes control over the assets and the trust’s terms.

Purpose: These trusts are often used for tax planning and asset protection. Since the grantor no longer owns the assets, they can reduce estate taxes and protect assets from creditors.

Example: A business owner, worried about potential lawsuits, places significant assets into an irrevocable trust. This move shields the assets from future legal claims, as they are no longer in his name.

These types of trusts each serve unique functions and can be tailored to fit various estate planning needs. Next, we’ll delve into specialized trusts designed for specific purposes.

Specialized Trusts for Specific Needs

When it comes to estate planning, specialized trusts can address specific needs and provide tailored solutions. Here are some common types of trusts that serve unique purposes:

Charitable Trusts

Charitable Trusts are designed to benefit charitable organizations while offering tax advantages to the grantor. There are two main types:

  • Charitable Lead Trusts (CLTs): These trusts provide income to a charity for a set period. After that period, the remaining assets go to the grantor’s beneficiaries. This setup can reduce gift and estate taxes.

  • Charitable Remainder Trusts (CRTs): In this arrangement, the grantor or other named beneficiaries receive income for life or a specified term. Afterward, the remaining assets go to the charity. This can provide income tax deductions and reduce estate taxes.

Example: Jane sets up a CRT to donate to her favorite charity while receiving a steady income during her retirement. Upon her passing, the remaining assets support the charity’s mission.

Special Needs Trusts

Special Needs Trusts are crafted to benefit individuals with disabilities without jeopardizing their eligibility for public assistance programs like Medicaid or SSI. There are three main types:

  • Third-Party Special Needs Trusts: Funded by someone other than the beneficiary, typically a family member.

  • Self-Settled Special Needs Trusts: Funded using the beneficiary’s own assets, often from a legal settlement.

  • Pooled Trusts: Managed by nonprofit organizations, pooling resources from multiple beneficiaries for investment purposes.

Example: Sarah sets up a third-party special needs trust for her son, who has a disability. This ensures he receives financial support without losing his Medicaid benefits.

Asset Protection Trusts

Asset Protection Trusts are designed to safeguard assets from future creditors, lawsuits, or other claims. These trusts are usually irrevocable and can be set up in jurisdictions with favorable trust laws.

Example: John, a doctor, creates an asset protection trust to shield his assets from potential malpractice claims. By placing his assets in the trust, they are no longer considered his property and are protected from creditors.

Life Insurance Trusts

Life Insurance Trusts, specifically Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts (ILITs), hold life insurance policies as their primary asset. These trusts help avoid estate taxes on the policy proceeds and provide control over the distribution of the funds.

Example: Maria establishes an ILIT to ensure her life insurance payout goes directly to her children without being subject to estate taxes. The trustee manages the policy and distributes the funds according to Maria’s wishes.

These types of trusts each serve unique functions and can be tailored to fit various estate planning needs. Next, we’ll delve into the advantages of establishing a trust.

Advantages of Establishing a Trust

Establishing a trust can offer numerous advantages, depending on your individual circumstances and goals. Below are some key benefits:

Avoid Probate

One of the most significant advantages of a trust is that it helps you avoid probate. Probate is the legal process of validating a will and distributing assets. This process can be time-consuming, costly, and public.

Fact: According to Investopedia, trusts can bypass the probate process, allowing for quicker and more private asset distribution.

Example: When John passed away, his family avoided the lengthy probate process because he had set up a living trust. His assets were distributed according to the trust’s terms, saving time and legal fees.

Tax Benefits

Certain types of trusts can offer tax benefits, which can be particularly advantageous for those with large estates. Trusts like irrevocable trusts can help reduce estate and income taxes.

Fact: Assets in an irrevocable trust are not considered part of your taxable estate, potentially resulting in substantial tax savings .

Example: The Smiths set up a Credit Shelter Trust to minimize estate taxes. This trust allowed them to pass more wealth to their heirs without incurring hefty tax obligations.

Asset Protection

Trusts can provide robust asset protection from creditors, lawsuits, or divorces. By placing assets in a trust, you ensure they are no longer in your personal possession and thus shielded against claims.

Fact: Asset Protection Trusts are specifically designed to protect your assets from future creditors (source).

Example: Emily transferred her assets into an Asset Protection Trust, safeguarding her wealth from potential business liabilities and personal lawsuits.

Control Over Asset Distribution

A trust gives you greater control over the distribution of your assets. You can specify how, when, and to whom your assets are distributed. This is particularly useful if you want to stagger inheritances or set conditions that beneficiaries must meet.

Fact: Trusts allow you to specify terms and timing of asset distribution, ensuring your wealth is dispersed precisely as you intend (source).

Example: David set up a Spendthrift Trust for his son, who is not financially responsible. This trust restricts access to the principal amount, allowing his son to benefit from the income without misusing the inheritance.

Next, we’ll explore how to choose the right trust for your needs.

Choosing the Right Trust for Your Needs

Choosing the right trust for your needs depends on several factors: the size of your estate, tax considerations, beneficiary needs, and your long-term goals. Let’s break these down.

Estate Size

The size of your estate plays a big role in determining which type of trust is best for you. If you have a large estate, exceeding $160,000, a Credit Shelter Trust might be beneficial. This type of trust can help reduce or even eliminate estate taxes, ensuring more of your wealth goes to your beneficiaries.

Example: Jane and John, a wealthy couple, set up a Credit Shelter Trust. When John passed away, the trust allowed Jane to use the income and principal for her needs without incurring estate taxes. After Jane’s death, the remaining assets went to their children, again avoiding estate taxes.

Tax Considerations

Tax implications are crucial when setting up a trust. Irrevocable Trusts can offer significant tax advantages, as they remove assets from your taxable estate. This can be particularly useful for high-net-worth individuals.

Fact: Irrevocable Trusts can protect your estate from lawsuits and creditors, making them ideal for professionals in litigious fields like medicine or law .

Beneficiary Needs

Consider the specific needs of your beneficiaries. If you have a beneficiary with special needs, a Special Needs Trust ensures they continue to receive government benefits while also benefiting from trust assets.

Example: Sarah set up a Special Needs Trust for her daughter, who has a disability. This trust allows her daughter to receive the necessary financial support without losing eligibility for public assistance programs.

Long-term Goals

Your long-term goals will also influence your choice of trust. If you want to support charitable causes, a Charitable Trust can be an excellent option. This type of trust allows you to donate to your favorite charities while also enjoying tax benefits.

Quote: “A charitable trust not only supports causes you care about but also provides tax deductions, making it a win-win situation” .

Example: Mark, a philanthropist, set up a Charitable Remainder Trust. This trust provided him with income during his lifetime, and after his passing, the remaining assets were donated to his chosen charities.

Next, we’ll address some frequently asked questions about trusts.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trusts

What is the best type of trust to have?

The “best” type of trust depends on your specific needs and goals. Here are some common scenarios:

  • Avoiding Probate: A Revocable Living Trust can help you bypass the probate process, making asset distribution quicker and private.
  • Asset Protection: An Irrevocable Trust offers strong protection from creditors and lawsuits.
  • Tax Benefits: AB Trusts and Generation-Skipping Trusts are designed to minimize estate taxes.
  • Special Needs: A Special Needs Trust ensures that a disabled beneficiary can receive financial support without losing government benefits.

Example: Jane set up a Revocable Living Trust to ensure her assets would be smoothly transferred to her children without the delays and costs of probate.

Can a trust avoid all taxes?

No, trusts cannot avoid all taxes, but they can help manage and reduce them. Here are some key points:

  • Estate Taxes: Trusts like Marital Trusts and Generation-Skipping Trusts can delay or reduce estate taxes.
  • Income Taxes: Trusts must still pay income taxes. Irrevocable trusts file their own tax returns, while revocable trusts’ income is reported on the grantor’s tax return.
  • Capital Gains Taxes: Properly structured trusts can minimize capital gains taxes, but they cannot eliminate them entirely.

Quote: “Trusts offer strategic advantages in managing taxes but cannot completely eliminate tax liabilities” .

What are the differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts?

Revocable Trusts:
Flexibility: Can be changed or revoked by the grantor at any time.
Control: The grantor retains control over the assets.
Probate: Helps avoid the probate process.
Taxes: Assets are included in the grantor’s estate and subject to estate taxes.

Irrevocable Trusts:
Permanence: Cannot be changed or revoked without the beneficiaries’ consent.
Protection: Offers strong asset protection from creditors.
Taxes: Assets are removed from the grantor’s estate, potentially reducing estate taxes.

Example: Dr. Smith, a physician, set up an Irrevocable Trust to protect his assets from potential lawsuits, knowing he couldn’t change the trust once it was created.

Next, we’ll explore the advantages of establishing a trust and how to choose the right one for your needs.


Estate planning is more than just a financial strategy—it’s about ensuring that your legacy reflects your values and provides for your loved ones. Trusts play a crucial role in this process by offering flexibility, control, and protection over your assets. Whether you’re looking to avoid probate, minimize taxes, or secure the financial future of your family, the right type of trust can make all the difference.

At Pace CPA, we understand that every family and individual has unique needs and goals. Our expertise in fiduciary tax services ensures that your estate planning is not only legally sound but also tailored to your specific circumstances. We are committed to helping you navigate the complexities of trust accounts, ensuring your assets are managed and distributed according to your wishes.

The decisions you make today will resonate through generations. With our guidance, you can create a trust that not only protects your wealth but also honors your intentions.

Reach out to us today and take the first step towards securing a prosperous financial future for you and your loved ones. Together, we can create a plan that ensures peace of mind and security for generations to come.


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