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Are living trusts the best option for keeping money safe?

Dear Lawyer Mark:

I received a letter in the mail the other day talking about living trusts. I was invited to a seminar, and they said that I should definitely have a living trust.

Between that letter, and an ad I saw on TV, it seems like if I don’t get one of these trusts, that lawyers and the courts are going to get all of my money.

One of the ads even said that the guy lost his home to pay for the taxes and fees. I’m and elderly person, Lawyer Mark, and am afraid of my money not being able to go where I want it to go.

I need some estate planning, and this company said that in most cases, their packages are only about $1,100. I am thinking that it would be better to pay them this than to see a lawyer because of the high fees.

I don’t have a lot of money, just my house and a little bit of retirement and Social Security income. What should I do, Lawyer Mark?

— Inquiring in Ironton

Dear Inquiring:

First of all, I would find it unconscionable to charge some one in your position that much money to do estate planning.

As to your nervousness about seeing lawyers for high fees, the reality is that unless you have an extremely large estate or a very complex set of circumstances, an estate plan from a local lawyer would not cost you nearly what you were told.

What’s more, even though these companies may advertise that they can keep you away from lawyer fees, all legal documents that they prepare, including the wills, powers of attorneys, and necessary trust documents, must be prepared and reviewed by an attorney; otherwise, they would be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

Your concern for estate taxes should also not be as great as you think. I have seen the TV ad of which you are speaking, and it actually refers to the deceased’s “second vacation home” and his innumerable accounts.

Currently, if you are a resident of Ohio, you don’t have to file an estate tax return or pay estate taxes unless your estate is larger than $338,000.

Unless your estate exceeds $1,000,000, you do not have to pay federal estate taxes.

If your concern is transferring the real estate to your children, there are several things you can do, including deeding the property now and keeping a life estate.

If you do not want to do that, Ohio now has what is called a “Transfer on Death” deed. This type of deed would allow you to put a deed on record now, but no interest would transfer until your actual death.

That means that you can change your mind, and deed the property to someone else without having to get permission from the individual to whom you did the first deed.

These options, coupled with a simple will, should cost less than a fourth of what the package you were quoted would cost.

In short, a living trust may be good, but it depends upon your factual circumstances whether it is the best vehicle for what you want to do.

A Porsche is a good looking car, but a 1982 Ford pickup will get you to the grocery store for a lot less money (and haul more groceries); in the case of your estate plan, your neighbors most likely won’t see what you’re driving, either.

My advice to you is to ask your friends and family for a lawyer whom you can trust, and have a consultation with them to over your factual circumstances.

It’s The Law is written by attorney Mark K. McCown in response to legal questions received by him. If you have a question, please forward it to Mark K. McCown, 311 Park Ave., Ironton, OH 45638, or e-mail it to him at LawyerMark@yahoo.com. The right to condense and/or edit all questions is reserved.