April 26, 2021
Death. We see grim news of it every day. Day after day. But when do you think about your own death? Who wants to? No one I know. But on rare occasions, perhaps in a sink of depression, thoughts of our own mortality come to us. Some experience conversion, epiphany, resolve to change their lives. Others decide to create a living trust.
We did just that. Not because of depression or epiphany; like almost everything I do, I did it, or we did it, because we heard about it from someone else. It may have been our daughter and son-in-law, who set one up. Or it may have been one of those late-night cable TV lawyers with an 888 number, the ones who also will get you out of jail.
A trust is a legal entity that, when the trustees pass on, manages the trust’s assets without tangling with the probate court which, if it steps in, can mean long delays and legal expenses. My mother’s will took months to resolve. My brothers, still in our hometown, did all the work. I didn’t pay much attention, but it amounted to a huge distraction in their lives. Sandy’s mom’s will, which involved the sale of her modest home, turned into a year-long slog, handled bravely by another son-in-law. Almost weekly we got baffling letters from a law firm overseeing her “estate.” That inches-thick sheaf of papers, in a box somewhere in the garage, is getting recycled as soon as I find it.
The concept of a trust was obscure to me. The term summoned thoughts of Gilded Age robber barons, railroads, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, people with money to burn or hide. I guess Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have trusts. Still, the argument about cutting paperwork and avoiding legal bills prompted us to call the attorney we had met with awhile back to see if our Virginia wills conformed to South Carolina law. For that chore, we sat with him at a beautifully polished table in the library of a lovely antebellum home. He looked them over, said they were okay and, to our amazement, didn’t charge us anything.
So a month ago we visited him again. He explained that a trust is more expensive and way more complicated than a will. It essentially becomes the repository of your assets even before you pass from the scene. The lawyer gives you the legalese, you listen, ask him to translate it into elementary-school language, you listen again, then ask again. We squinted, but said we’ll go with it. He took our check. I gritted my teeth as I wrote it, recalling the $1,000 for breaking our apartment lease, another surprise cost.
We came back three weeks later. His polished table was covered with forms and a thick blue three-ring binder that contained our wills, powers of attorney, “certification of trust,” and the trust document, which runs to 50—that’s right, 50 pages. For us? My jaw sagged. We signed away, form after form. I thumbed through the binder—never had I dreamed my demise would rate so much legal lingo. The trust consists of 26 (XXVI) articles, each with multiple sections and subsections, printed on glossy, probably fireproof paper. I paused at Article IV, “Administration of My Trust During My Incapacity.” It lays out how our bills keep getting paid after I’ve become decrepit. In everyday English, things keep humming along.
Then the hard part began. We had homework. The trust only works if the people who hold your assets know it exists. We started with a trip to the nearest branch of Bank of America, where we had obtained the check we needed for the closing on our house. For that errand we were shown into the office of the manager, who doubles as a Merrill Lynch salesman. He welcomed us to South Carolina, then gave his Merrill pitch. “Stocks? Bonds? A BOA credit card? Think of the points you’ll earn!” We stared at our watches until he gave up.
To record the trust as designee on the bank signature cards, we got a repeat performance of the Merrill briefing until our eyes turned glassy. He’s probably got some good deals and advice. But when you’re ears-deep in abstract financial talk, who cares?
Finally we got out of there. I started on the phone calls to Fidelity and our old faithful, USAA, where we have tiny accounts. It would have been easier to cash ‘em in than to fill out the forms, but I have trouble grasping the big financial picture. I finished the forms. I didn’t scan and email them or save them to a web “portal.” I licked stamps and mailed them.
We’re still thrashing about with this. I set the big blue binder aside without reading to the end. The attorney urged us to stick it in a fireproof safe or safe-deposit box, that’s still on the to-do list. But the spunk I felt last month to focus on death, which, bottom line, is what the trust is all about, has ebbed a bit. It can be exhausting. It does keep you jogging, going to the gym, watching the calories and the desserts, as you go through the motions of postponing the inevitable. But I looked over Section 1.01 of the trust: “… for the purpose of transferring property to my Trust or identifying my beneficiary, or pay-on-death designation …”
Every so often I browse through the financial pages checking the stock market (up or down?) wondering what the fine print of the trust will really mean to our beneficiaries when the time comes. The market is beyond our control. At least we’ve checked the heavyweight legal document box—both of us, as “trustees,” along with the Vanderbilts.