Joint Revocable Trusts May Be Best For Married Couples

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When you’re considering setting up a trust to avoid probate, you’ll be “sold” a living revocable trust. A married couple can have individual trusts or joint trusts. Joint trusts will have only one physical trust document. An individual trust for the husband and an individual trust for the wife will usually be created using two separate trust documents. However, a single document could be used to describe two separate trusts.

A joint revocable trust is probably the easiest form of living revocable trusts for a married couple to use. A joint revocable trust merges the estate planning of a couple using a single trust document.
Joint trusts and individual trusts each have advantages and disadvantages. I haven’t seen that one choice is better than the other. It just depends upon what you want. In my book, Protecting Your Financial Future, I am very careful to give you advantages and disadvantages, because I don’t care if you do a living revocable trust or not.

Whether you use a joint revocable living trust or single living trusts, they are one of the basic tools you need to protect your family.

Joint Trusts vs. Separate Trusts

Joint revocable trusts are easier to “manage” during the period where both spouses are alive. The couple doesn’t have to divide up assets into separate trusts. All of the couple’s assets are simply transferred to the one joint revocable living trust, and the couple will continue to “manage” the assets essentially as they did prior to setting up the joint revocable living trust.

Joint revocable living trusts are more difficult to “manage” after the death of the first spouse to die. If the joint trust is set up to take advantage of the marital deduction and the exemption equivalent (estate tax laws), then the joint living trust will have to divide itself into two trusts – a marital trust and a shelter trust – after the death of the first spouse. Making that division of the joint revocable trust is time consuming and costly.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a joint trust and actually have two trusts, the assets have to be divided between the two trusts during your life. The division of assets between the two individual trusts throughout the couple’s lives takes some thought. If the trusts aren’t evenly balanced, there can be big estate tax problems.

It seems to be easier for most couples to use a joint trust and keep the assets together during the couple’s life. Then when the first spouse to die actually dies, the surviving spouse can let the accountants and attorneys divide things up into the two trusts.

You should note that even if you have two separate trusts, the division of the marital trust and the shelter trust still needs to be made when the first spouse dies. The cost is going to be a little less than if you had a joint revocable trust, but not a lot less.

Joint Revocable Living Trust and Asset Protection

If you are worried about asset protection, then individual trusts may be better for you than joint living trusts. It may be window dressing, but single trusts give the illusion of making a clearer separation of assets between spouses than joint trusts do.

Actually, you can draft a living trust so it is a joint trust, but the trust document can be written to also include separate trusts. There is only one document, but it describes a joint revocable trust and then it describes separate trusts for each spouse. So, technically the one trust document creates a joint revocable living trust and then a separate trust for the husband and a separate trust for the wife.

Joint trusts probably shouldn’t be used between couples in a “common law marriage” or alternative lifestyle couples. The option of creating the marital trust at the death of the first member of the couple to die just isn’t there. It turns out to be a real mess to try and divide the assets in a joint trust at the first death of the two individuals who are not legally married. Plus, in this situation the joint revocable trust can be an estate tax disaster. Just use separate trusts and make the division of assets during your lifetimes.

Division of a Joint Trust at Death

This article has talked about the division of a joint trust at the death of the first spouse to die. The division will create a shelter trust and a marital trust.

You should note that whether you have joint trusts or an individual trust, at the death of the first spouse, a shelter trust needs to be created to “shelter” the exemption equivalent amount. The exemption equivalent amount is the value of property that can be passed by an individual at death without actually having an estate tax payable by the individual’s estate. The marital trust will be created to move assets above the exemption equivalent amount to the surviving spouse estate tax free.

In the final analysis, joint trusts are probably the preferred form of living revocable trusts that Mom and Pop America should be using. My book, Protecting Your Financial Future, walks you through all your choices. It’s written in story format and has been a Time Warner Book-of-the-month Club book. It’s a great read. Order now and you’ll get the free DVD, Using the Law to Make Money and Protect Your Assets ($19.99 value).

PS Don’t forget to watch the six free videos, The Six Most Costly Estate Planning Mistakes.


About the Author

Attorney Lee R. Phillips is a nationally recognized attorney who has helped thousands of audiences understand the latest asset protection, business structuring and tax planning techniques. He is a counselor to the United States Supreme Court and holds licenses in law, real estate and insurance. He has a BS in geology, MS in analytical chemistry, and JD in law. Shortly after starting his career as a patent attorney, he started a cancer research project as the national guinea pig, which included five months in isolation intensive care. Over 150 doctors participated directly in his treatment. He understands his audience, because he lost everything due to his illness. You will understand why asset protection became his passion. For thirty years his company, LegaLees Corporation, has specialized in solving asset protection and tax problems for high net worth individuals. Lee is a motivating, engaging, and dynamic speaker who has spoken to over a million people throughout the United States, Canada and the Pacific Rim helping them understand the law and how to use it to their benefit.


  1. Lydia  July 13, 2011

    I am married in California and have real estate that my husband and I hold jointly. He refuses to think about estate planning and doesn’t seem to care about the tax consequences that may be left to our children. Can I proceed to create a living revocable trust without him?

    • leephillips  July 13, 2011

      Technically you can write your own trust. But in reality it will not work well as it could if you do your estate planning together. Your trust will only work for your family if your husband is the first to die. California is a community property state, so if you die first all of your joint property will go to your husband. The trust will save more than just taxes, if your husband dies intestate, your family will then have to go to Court and the Judge will decide where the property goes. Why does your husband refuse to get a trust? Cost? Time?


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