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Trusts for Dummies: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Trusts

Are you new to the world of trusts? Trusts can seem like a complicated and mysterious concept. But they are actually a valuable tool for managing and protecting your assets. In this Trusts for Dummies guide, we will demystify trusts and help you understand what they are and how they work.

We will explore the different types of trusts, including revocable and irrevocable trusts, living trusts, and testamentary trusts. We will also delve into the advantages and disadvantages of trusts, as well as the steps involved in setting up a trust.

Whether you’re looking to protect your wealth, minimize estate taxes, or ensure the financial security of your loved ones, understanding trusts is essential. So, let’s demystify trusts together and gain the knowledge you need to make informed decisions about your assets.

What is a trust

To put it in simple terms, trusts are legal arrangements that allow a third party, known as a trustee, to hold assets on behalf of beneficiaries. Think of it as a way to ensure your assets are managed and distributed according to your wishes. This “trusts for dummies” guide will walk you through the different types of trusts and their benefits.

Let’s get a little more specific now. A trust is a legal arrangement that allows a third party, known as a trustee, to hold assets on behalf of beneficiaries. The trustee is responsible for managing the assets in accordance with the terms of the trust. Those trust terms are set out in a legal document called the trust. The beneficiaries are the individuals or organizations that will ultimately benefit from the trust.

There are different types of trusts, each having its own set of rules and purposes. The most common types include revocable and irrevocable trusts, living trusts, and testamentary trusts. Revocable trusts can be changed or revoked by the person creating the trust, while irrevocable trusts cannot. Living trusts are created during the lifetime of the person creating the trust, while testamentary trusts are established through a will and come into effect after the person’s death.

Types of trusts

Revocable trusts, also known as living trusts or inter vivos trusts, are one of the most popular types of trusts. These trusts allow the person creating the trust, known as the grantor or settlor, to retain control over the assets during their lifetime. The grantor can change or revoke the trust at any time, and they can also serve as the trustee. Upon the grantor’s death, the assets in the trust are transferred to the beneficiaries named in the trust deed.

Irrevocable trusts, on the other hand, typically require the beneficiaries’ consent for any changes or revocation. Once the grantor transfers assets to an irrevocable trust, those assets no longer belong to the grantor’s estate and may be protected from estate taxes and creditors. People often use irrevocable trusts for asset protection and charitable giving purposes.

Living trusts, as mentioned earlier, are created during the grantor’s lifetime and can be either revocable or irrevocable. These trusts allow for the management of assets during the grantor’s lifetime and provide for the distribution of assets upon their death. Living trusts can help avoid probate, a legal process that can be time-consuming and expensive.

As the name suggests, a testamentary trust is established through a person’s will and takes effect after their death. These trusts can be revocable or irrevocable and often provide for the financial needs of minor children or individuals with special needs. People also use testamentary trusts to protect assets from beneficiaries who may not be capable of managing them.

Why create a trust

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a trust is and the different types available, let’s explore why someone might choose to create a trust. Trusts offer several benefits and can be a valuable tool for managing and protecting your assets.

One of the main reasons to create a trust is for estate planning purposes. Trusts allow you to specify how your assets should be distributed upon your death, ensuring that your wishes are carried out. They can help minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, and provide for the financial needs of your loved ones. Additionally, trusts can offer privacy, as the details of the trust do not become part of the public record like a will does.

Trusts can also be used for asset protection. By transferring assets to an irrevocable trust, you can shield them from potential lawsuits, creditors, or other financial risks. This can be particularly important for individuals in high-risk professions or those with significant wealth. Asset protection trusts can provide peace of mind knowing that your assets are safeguarded for future generations.

Another benefit of trusts is the ability to continue managing your assets even if you become incapacitated. With a revocable living trust, for example, you can name a successor trustee who will step in and manage your affairs if you are unable to do so yourself. This can help avoid the need for a court-appointed guardian or conservator and ensure that your assets are properly cared for.

Key Parties Involved in a Trust

To understand trusts, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the key parties involved. There are three main roles in a trust:

  1. Settlor/Grantor: The settlor, also known as the grantor or trustor, is the person who creates the trust. The settlor transfers their assets to the trust and defines the terms and conditions under which the trust operates. It is the settlor’s wishes that the trustee must follow.
  2. Trustee: The trustee is the individual or entity responsible for managing and administering the trust. They hold legal title to the assets in the trust and have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. The trustee is bound by the instructions and restrictions outlined in the trust document.
  3. Beneficiaries: Beneficiaries are the individuals or entities who benefit from the trust. They can be family members, friends, charities, or even pets. The settlor specifies the beneficiaries and the conditions under which they can receive distributions from the trust.

It’s worth noting that in some cases, the settlor and trustee can be the same person, especially in revocable trusts where the settlor retains control over the trust assets during their lifetime. Additionally, there may be multiple trustees and beneficiaries involved in a trust, depending on its complexity and purpose.

Setting Up a Trust: Trusts for Dummies Style

Setting up a trust involves several important steps. Here’s a basic “trusts for dummies” step-by-step guide:

  1. Determine the Purpose and Type of Trust: Before setting up a trust, you need to clearly define the purpose and goals you want to achieve. Consider whether you want to protect assets, provide for your loved ones, or support a charitable cause. Based on your objectives, you can choose from various types of trusts, such as revocable or irrevocable trusts, living trusts, or testamentary trusts.
  2. Choose a Trustee: Selecting the right trustee is crucial, as they will be responsible for managing and safeguarding your assets. You can choose a family member, friend, or a professional trustee, such as a bank or a trust company. Consider their ability to handle financial matters, their willingness to take on the role, and their understanding of your wishes.
  3. Create the Trust Document: Once you have determined the purpose and chosen a trustee, you need to create the trust document. This legal document outlines the terms and conditions of the trust, including the assets transferred, the beneficiaries, and the instructions for managing and distributing the assets. It is important to work with an experienced attorney to ensure the trust document is properly drafted and aligned with your intentions.
  4. Transfer Assets to the Trust: After the trust document is created, you need to transfer the identified assets to the trust. This can involve changing the ownership of real estate, re-titling financial accounts, or assigning other assets to the trust. It is crucial to follow the proper legal procedures to ensure the assets are effectively transferred to the trust.
  5. Notify Beneficiaries: It is important to inform the beneficiaries of the trust about their inclusion and their potential rights and benefits. This not only ensures transparency but also allows them to understand their role and responsibilities within the trust structure.
  6. Manage and Administer the Trust: Once the trust is established, the trustee is responsible for managing and administering the trust according to the instructions outlined in the trust document. This includes safeguarding the assets, making investment decisions, and making distributions to the beneficiaries as specified in the trust.

Setting up a trust can be a complex process, and it is highly recommended to seek professional advice from an attorney or a trust specialist to ensure all legal requirements are met and your objectives are properly addressed.

Common Misconceptions about Trusts

Let’s debunk some myths in our “trusts for dummies” myth-busting section:

  1. Trusts are only for the wealthy: While trusts are often associated with wealthy individuals, they can be beneficial for people of all income levels. Trusts can provide asset protection, minimize estate taxes, and ensure the smooth transfer of assets to your loved ones, regardless of the size of your estate.
  2. Trusts are only for older people: Trusts are not limited to older individuals or those nearing retirement. In fact, establishing a trust earlier in life can offer advantages such as protecting assets from potential creditors, avoiding probate, and providing for the financial security of your family.
  3. Once assets are in a trust, they can never be accessed again: This misconception stems from the idea that irrevocable trusts are set in stone. While it’s true that irrevocable trusts generally cannot be changed or revoked without the consent of the beneficiaries, revocable trusts offer more flexibility. With a revocable trust, you can retain control over the assets during your lifetime and have the option to make changes if necessary.
  4. Trusts are only for passing on assets after death: While trusts are commonly used in estate planning to transfer assets after death, they can also serve other purposes, such as providing for the care of minors or individuals with special needs, managing assets during incapacity, or supporting charitable causes during your lifetime.
  5. Trusts are expensive and only for the wealthy: While there are costs associated with setting up and administering a trust, the benefits can often outweigh the expenses. Trusts can help protect your assets from legal disputes, minimize estate taxes, and ensure a smooth transfer of wealth to your beneficiaries.

It’s important to consult with a qualified professional to debunk any misconceptions and determine if a trust is the right solution for your specific needs and goals.


Trusts may initially seem complex and intimidating, but with the right understanding and guidance, they can be powerful tools for managing and protecting your assets. By familiarizing yourself with the key parties involved, the steps to set up a trust, and debunking common misconceptions, you can make informed decisions and leverage trusts to achieve your financial objectives.

Whether you want to preserve your wealth, provide for your family, or support charitable causes, trusts offer flexibility, control, and peace of mind. Remember, each individual’s circumstances are unique, so it’s important to consult with a qualified attorney or trust professional to tailor a trust arrangement that aligns with your specific needs and goals.

So, don’t let the mystery of trusts hold you back. Start demystifying trusts today and take control of your financial future.


Founding attorney Paul Deloughery has been an attorney since 1998, became a Certified Family Wealth Advisor. He is also the founder of Sudden Wealth Protection Law.