Trusts Explained: What They Are and How They Work

Discover what is a trust, its types, benefits, and common misconceptions. Learn how trusts work and why they’re crucial for legacy planning.


When people talk about managing their money and property for the future, what is a trust often comes up. In simple terms, a trust is a legal arrangement where one person, the trustee, holds and manages assets for the benefit of another, the beneficiary. Trusts are a key tool in estate planning and provide several benefits, including asset protection, tax advantages, and control over how and when your assets are distributed.

Key points to understand what is a trust:
Trustor: Person who creates the trust.
Trustee: Person or entity that manages the trust.
Beneficiary: Person or entity that benefits from the trust.
Principal: The assets held by the trust.
Income: Earnings generated from the trust’s assets.

Understanding trusts is crucial for anyone thinking about how to best protect and distribute their assets, ensure their family’s financial future, and create a lasting legacy. Trusts offer a way to efficiently manage and protect your wealth, helping you to achieve specific goals and provide for your loved ones in a structured manner.

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In the sections that follow, we’ll dive deeper into the mechanics of trusts, the different types available, and the advantages and disadvantages of setting one up.

Understanding the Basics of Trusts

A trust is a legal arrangement designed to manage and protect assets for the benefit of specific individuals or entities. Let’s break down the key players and elements involved in a trust to understand how it works:


The trustor, also known as the grantor or settlor, is the person who creates the trust. They transfer their assets into the trust and set the terms for how those assets should be managed and distributed.


The trustee is the individual or institution responsible for managing the trust’s assets according to the trustor’s instructions. The trustee’s duties include:

  • Taking control of and protecting trust assets
  • Handling accounting responsibilities
  • Strategically managing and investing assets
  • Filing trust tax returns
  • Reporting to beneficiaries
  • Making distributions as permitted by the trust

Trustees are bound by a fiduciary duty, meaning they must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries and manage the trust assets prudently.


The beneficiary is the person or entity that receives benefits from the trust. This can include income from investments, use of property, or other distributions as specified in the trust document. Beneficiaries have rights to information about the trust and can enforce those rights if the trustee fails in their duties.

Fiduciary Arrangement

A trust is a fiduciary arrangement, which means the trustee has a legal and ethical obligation to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. This includes managing the trust’s assets responsibly and making decisions that align with the trustor’s wishes.

Legal Protection

Trusts offer several forms of legal protection:

  • Asset Protection: Trusts can shield assets from creditors, lawsuits, and divorce settlements.
  • Tax Benefits: Some trusts can offer tax advantages, such as reducing estate taxes.
  • Probate Avoidance: Assets in a trust typically bypass the public, court-supervised probate process, allowing for faster and more private distribution.

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Understanding these basics helps illustrate why trusts are a valuable tool in estate planning and wealth management. They provide a structured way to manage and protect assets, ensuring that the trustor’s wishes are honored and beneficiaries are cared for.

In the next section, we’ll explore the different types of trusts and their specific purposes.

Types of Trusts and Their Purposes

Trusts come in various forms, each designed to meet specific needs and goals. Choosing the right type of trust is crucial for effective estate planning. Here, we’ll break down some common types of trusts and their primary purposes.

Revocable Trusts

Revocable Trusts, also known as living trusts, are popular for their flexibility. The grantor can change, amend, or even dissolve the trust during their lifetime.

Purpose: The main goal is to avoid probate, speeding up asset distribution and keeping matters private. For example, a grandmother might set up a revocable trust to pass her home to her grandchildren without the delays of probate.

Example: A grandmother establishes a revocable trust to pass her home to her grandchildren without the delays and public scrutiny of probate.

Irrevocable Trusts

Irrevocable Trusts cannot be altered once they are established without the beneficiaries’ consent. This lack of flexibility comes with significant advantages.

Purpose: These trusts are often used for tax planning and asset protection. By placing assets in an irrevocable trust, the grantor removes them from their taxable estate, potentially reducing estate taxes and protecting the assets from creditors.

Example: A business owner sets up an irrevocable trust to shield company assets from potential lawsuits and reduce estate taxes.

Special Needs Trusts

Special Needs Trusts are designed to provide for a beneficiary with a disability without affecting their eligibility for government benefits.

Purpose: These trusts ensure that a loved one with special needs receives financial support while still qualifying for benefits like Social Security.

Example: Parents of a child with a disability establish a special needs trust to ensure their child is financially secure without losing access to essential government programs.

Testamentary Trusts

Testamentary Trusts are created through a will and only come into effect after the grantor’s death. They are often used to manage how assets are distributed to beneficiaries over time.

Purpose: These trusts provide control over asset distribution, particularly for minor children or beneficiaries who may need guidance in managing their inheritance.

Example: A parent sets up a testamentary trust to manage their children’s inheritance until they reach adulthood.

Asset-Protection Trusts

Asset-Protection Trusts are designed to protect a person’s assets from claims by creditors or lawsuits. These trusts can be either domestic or offshore.

Purpose: They ensure that assets are safeguarded from potential legal claims, providing peace of mind that wealth is preserved.

Example: A professional facing potential liability risks, such as a doctor, establishes an asset-protection trust to shield personal assets from malpractice lawsuits.

Understanding the different types of trusts helps in making informed decisions about estate planning. Each type of trust serves a unique function, catering to various needs and goals. In the next section, we’ll dive into how trusts work, from creation to managing and distributing assets.

How Trusts Work: The Process Explained

Trusts might sound complicated, but breaking them down step-by-step makes them much easier to understand. Let’s walk through creating a trust, funding it, managing assets, and distributing to beneficiaries.

Creating a Trust

Creating a trust starts with a legal document called a trust agreement. Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Choose Your Trust Type: Decide whether you need a revocable, irrevocable, or another type based on your goals.
  2. Draft the Trust Agreement: This legal document outlines the trust’s terms, including who the beneficiaries are, the trustee’s duties, and how and when the trust will end.
  3. Appoint a Trustee: Select a trustworthy individual or institution to manage the trust. This person or entity will follow the instructions in the trust agreement.
  4. Sign the Agreement: Make it legally binding by signing the document, often requiring notarization.

Funding the Trust

Once the trust is created, you need to transfer assets into it, known as funding the trust. Here’s how:

  1. Identify the Assets: Decide which assets to place into the trust, such as real estate, bank accounts, stocks, or personal property.
  2. Change Titles and Ownership: For real estate, execute a new deed naming the trust as the owner. For bank accounts and securities, contact financial institutions to retitle the accounts in the trust’s name.
  3. Update Beneficiary Designations: For life insurance policies and retirement accounts, update the beneficiary designations to reflect the trust if appropriate.

Example: A family transfers their home into a trust by changing the deed, ensuring that the property avoids probate and is seamlessly managed if they pass away.

Managing Assets

The trustee manages the trust’s assets based on the grantor’s instructions. This can include:

  • Investing assets to generate income or growth.
  • Distributing income or principal to beneficiaries as specified.
  • Protecting assets from creditors or lawsuits.

Example: The trustee might invest trust funds in stocks and bonds to grow the trust’s value while distributing monthly payments to beneficiaries for living expenses.

Distributions to Beneficiaries

Distributing assets to beneficiaries is a key function of a trust. The trust agreement specifies how and when these distributions occur. Here are some common methods:

  • Lump-Sum Payments: Beneficiaries receive all their inheritance at once.
  • Scheduled Payments: Assets are distributed over time, such as monthly or yearly.
  • Conditional Distributions: Beneficiaries receive assets only if certain conditions are met, like graduating from college.

Example: A trust might stipulate that a child receives monthly payments for living expenses until they turn 25, when they receive the remaining assets in a lump sum.

By understanding and following these steps, you can ensure that a trust operates smoothly and according to your wishes. This leads us to the next section, where we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of trusts.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Trusts


Avoid Probate

One of the biggest benefits of a trust is that it can help your beneficiaries avoid probate. Probate is a legal process where a will is validated, and the estate is distributed. It’s often time-consuming and costly. Trusts, however, allow assets to pass directly to beneficiaries without going through probate, saving time and money.

Tax Benefits

Trusts can also offer significant tax advantages. For example, assets placed in an irrevocable trust are not considered part of your taxable estate. This can help reduce estate taxes. Certain types of trusts, like charitable trusts, can also provide income tax deductions.

Control Over Wealth

A trust gives you control over how and when your assets are distributed. You can set specific terms, such as distributing funds only when a beneficiary reaches a certain age or achieves a milestone, like graduating from college. This can be especially useful in complex family situations.


Unlike wills, which go through probate and become public records, trusts can keep your estate details private. This is particularly beneficial if you want to keep your financial matters confidential or if you’re disinheriting someone.



Setting up a trust can be expensive. Hiring an estate planning attorney to draft a trust and transfer assets can cost over $1,000. While online tools are cheaper, they may require more effort on your part.


Irrevocable trusts offer strong asset protection and tax benefits, but they come with a significant drawback: once you place assets in an irrevocable trust, you can’t easily change or revoke the trust. This lack of flexibility can be a disadvantage if your financial situation or family dynamics change.

Creating a trust involves upfront costs and ongoing management, but the benefits can far outweigh these disadvantages for many people. Next, we’ll tackle some common misconceptions about trusts to help clear up any confusion.

Common Misconceptions About Trusts

When thinking about what is a trust, many people have some common misconceptions that can lead to confusion. Let’s clear up a few of these myths.

Only for the Wealthy

Misconception: Trusts are only for rich people.

Reality: Trusts can be useful for anyone, not just the wealthy. They provide peace of mind by ensuring your assets go to the right people. Whether you have a large estate or modest assets, a trust can help manage and protect what you have. For instance, a trust can ensure a dependent with a disability receives care or that your assets are managed wisely if you become incapacitated.


Misconception: Trusts are too complex for the average person.

Reality: While setting up a trust can be more complex than writing a simple will, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Working with knowledgeable professionals, like estate planning attorneys, can simplify the process. There are also online resources and estate planning software that can help. Trusts can actually make things simpler for your beneficiaries by avoiding probate and providing clear instructions on asset distribution.

Total Asset Protection

Misconception: Trusts provide absolute protection against creditors and legal judgments.

Reality: Not all trusts offer the same level of protection. Revocable trusts, for example, do not protect assets from creditors since the grantor retains control over the assets. Irrevocable trusts, on the other hand, can offer strong protection because the grantor gives up control over the assets. However, even these protections have limits and may not apply in all situations. It’s essential to understand the specific type of trust you are considering and its implications.

Probate Avoidance

Misconception: All trusts automatically avoid probate.

Reality: While many trusts, like revocable living trusts, are designed to avoid probate, this is not true for all trusts. Testamentary trusts, for instance, are created through a will and must go through probate. Understanding the type of trust and its characteristics is crucial to achieving your goals, including probate avoidance.

By addressing these misconceptions, you can better understand how trusts might fit into your estate planning strategy. Next, we’ll answer some frequently asked questions about trusts to further clarify how they work.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trusts

What is the point of a trust?

A trust serves many purposes, but its main goal is to manage and protect your assets. Here’s why you might consider one:

  • Avoid Probate: Trusts can help your heirs avoid the lengthy and costly probate process. This means quicker access to assets and more privacy for your family.
  • Control Over Distribution: You can specify how and when your assets are distributed. This is useful if you want to provide for minors or ensure that your beneficiaries use the assets wisely.
  • Tax Benefits: Certain trusts can reduce estate, gift, and income taxes. For example, a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust (GRAT) can minimize estate taxes by transferring the appreciation of assets to beneficiaries.
  • Protection from Creditors: Irrevocable trusts can protect your assets from creditors and lawsuits, as the assets are no longer considered your property.

Example: A Special Needs Trust ensures that a beneficiary with disabilities receives care without losing eligibility for government benefits.

How does a trust avoid taxes and probate?

Trusts can help with both tax savings and probate avoidance, but it depends on the type of trust:

  • Avoiding Probate: Assets held in a trust don’t go through probate court. This can save time and money, and keep your affairs private. For instance, a revocable living trust becomes effective during your lifetime and helps avoid probate for the assets it contains.

Fact: In some states, probate can take months or even years. Trusts streamline this process, ensuring quicker access to assets for your loved ones.

  • Tax Benefits: Trusts can offer various tax advantages. For example, assets in a revocable trust benefit from a step-up in basis, which can mean substantial tax savings for the heirs. Irrevocable trusts, like an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust (ILIT), can remove assets from your taxable estate, reducing estate taxes.

Example: If the original cost of shares was $5,000 and their value increased to $10,000 by the time they were passed on, the step-up in basis would be $10,000. This means the beneficiary would owe taxes only on the gain exceeding $10,000.

Why might a trust be considered bad?

While trusts offer many benefits, they’re not without drawbacks:

  • Cost: Setting up a trust can be expensive. Hiring an estate planning attorney often costs over $1,000. Using online tools is cheaper but requires more effort and carries risks of errors.
  • Complexity: Trusts require specific language to be legally valid. If the terms aren’t clear, someone could challenge the trustee later in court. This can lead to disputes and additional legal fees.
  • Irrevocability: Irrevocable trusts, while offering strong protection from creditors, cannot be easily changed or revoked. Once assets are transferred, you lose control over them.
  • Time-Consuming: Setting up a trust involves paperwork and discussions with heirs. Some trusts also need to file their own tax returns, adding to the complexity.

Quote: “Trusts allow you to dictate how and when your assets are distributed, providing peace of mind that your financial legacy will be handled exactly as you intend,” says Jay Knighton, an estate planning attorney.


As we wrap up our exploration of trusts, it’s clear that they play a vital role in legacy planning. Trusts aren’t just about managing wealth; they’re about ensuring your legacy continues according to your wishes, providing for loved ones, and potentially supporting charitable causes long after you’re gone.

Trusts offer numerous benefits:

  • Avoiding probate: This saves time and keeps your affairs private.
  • Minimizing taxes: Certain trusts can reduce estate, gift, or income taxes.
  • Providing control: You can specify exactly how and when your assets are distributed.
  • Protecting assets: Trusts can shield your assets from creditors and lawsuits.

Creating a trust might seem daunting at first, but the benefits far outweigh the initial complexities. Trusts ensure your financial affairs are in order, giving you peace of mind and protecting your family’s future.

At Pace CPA, we understand that setting up a trust can be complex. Our expertise in fiduciary tax services ensures that your trust is established efficiently and managed according to the highest standards. We pride ourselves on making the complex understandable and tailoring strategies that meet your unique needs and goals.

Whether you’re just starting to think about estate planning or looking to refine existing plans, considering how trusts can work for you is a wise step. Trusts offer a structured way to manage and protect your assets, ensuring that your legacy is preserved and protected for future generations.

Let us at Pace CPA help you ensure that your legacy is as enduring as your life’s work. Reach out to us today to explore how we can assist you in your estate planning journey.

Explore our fiduciary tax services and let us guide you every step of the way in this important endeavor. Your peace of mind is our priority.


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