A. Living Trusts
As you know, a living trust is a legal arrangement where a person, called the “grantor,” places his assets into a trust during his lifetime. The trust is administered by a “trustee” for the benefit of the trust’s beneficiaries. The grantor may be a trustee and a beneficiary of the trust. Living trusts are a widely recognized and legitimate estate planning device. Because assets transferred to the trust are no longer owned by the grantor, at the grantor’s death, the assets are not part of the grantor’s estate and do not have to be probated. Accordingly, a living trust can avoid what could be a costly, lengthy process. Whether or not this is a major advantage varies by the size of the estate and by state and locality; for small estates, many states have an informal probate process that minimizes cost and delay. Whether a living trust is an appropriate estate planning tool depends upon an individual’s circumstances and goals, and state laws.
B. Scams Involving Living Trusts
Misinformation and misunderstanding about probate and estate taxes provide a ripe environment for scam artists to prey on older consumers’ fears that their estates will be eaten up by costs, and that distribution of their assets to loved ones will be long delayed. Some unscrupulous businesses advertise seminars on living trusts or send postcards inviting consumers to call for in-home appointments, ostensibly to learn whether a living trust is right for them. A common practice is to greatly exaggerate the benefits of living trusts and falsely claim that locally-licensed attorneys will prepare the documents. In some instances, consumers send money for living trust kits but receive nothing. In others, the offer of estate planning services is merely a ruse to gain access to consumers’ financial information and to sell them other financial products, such as insurance annuities. These practices may violate federal securities laws, as well as other laws.
Many state Attorneys General and other authorities, such as disciplinary or grievance committees of state or city bar associations, have taken enforcement actions against living trust scam artists. Some cases have been brought under state Unfair and Deceptive Acts and Practices laws. Others have been prosecuted as the unauthorized practice of law because the salespeople were not lawyers. Even in instances where there may be some attorney review, it may be insufficient to render the activity legal. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also has prosecuted companies purporting to offer estate planning services, such as living trusts, for violating the securities laws through fraudulent investment schemes targeting senior citizens.