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By John R. Merlino Jr. Esq.
Founding Attorney

Are trusts just for celebrity estate planning?

New York and New Jersey estate planning attorneys assist clients from all walks of life– from those with modest means to wealthy celebrities. Some people think that estate planning is only necessary if you are wealthy, but everyone over the age of 18 can benefit from estate planning. And as you go through different phases of life, your estate plan can be reviewed and revised as needed. Modifying an estate plan might be necessary after major life events like a marriage or divorce, the birth or adoption of children, business ventures, changes in financial status, and more.

Most people understand that the Last Will and Testament, commonly referred to as a “Will”, is a document many individuals use to indicate how they want their property and assets distributed after their death. Once the maker of the Will (called the “Testator”) dies, their Will is filed with the Surrogate’s Court and goes through the probate process– which can be lengthy and costly. The Will also becomes a matter of public record when probated. Some people choose to create a Revocable Living Trust (“RLT”) in addition to or instead of distributing their assets through a Will.

What is a Revocable Living Trust?

A RLT is an estate planning tool where the legal title to your assets can be transferred into the trust and they are managed by you for your benefit during your lifetime—so you serve as the trustee and are the beneficiary. Then, if you have not previously revoked the RLT, upon your death or incapacity, your designated successor trustee will carry out your wishes of how you want the trust assets to be managed and/or distributed to your beneficiaries.

What are the advantages of a Revocable Living Trust over a Will?

  • With a RLT, assets can be immediately transferred to beneficiaries after death without court intervention.
  • If the Trustee becomes incapacitated, management of the assets can proceed without the necessity of a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.
  • A RLT avoids the expense of the probate process.
  • A RLT is often used for planning for a potential future disability.
  • A Will is a public record whereas a RLT offers privacy.

For many of these reasons, a Revocable Living Trust is often utilized by celebrities. However, it is an estate planning tool that’s available to anyone.

Even if you aren’t a huge Broadway fan, chances are you recognize the name of the late Stephen Sondheim who passed away on November 26, 2021. One of the most famous composers and lyricists of our time, Sondheim was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose well-known musical theatre collaborations included Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, and Passion, to name a few.

After his passing, it was reported that he “left the rights to all of his work… to a trust that will manage his estate” including his intellectual property and other property. Reportedly, a probate petition and a Will “that leaves all of his property to the revocable trust” were filed in the New York Surrogate’s Court. The probate papers reportedly listed numerous individuals and organizations as beneficiaries but did not disclose specifically what the beneficiaries will receive– which is the privacy benefit of using a trust in estate planning.

If you need assistance with an initial estate plan or want to modify an existing one or have questions regarding any other estate planning matter, the experts at Merlino & Gonzalez can help you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

From our offices in Staten Island, New York, and East Brunswick, New Jersey, we represent clients in both states in all aspects of estate planning and estate administration.

About the Author
John is a fierce advocate and the office guru for problem-solving and brainstorming. He guides clients through every stage of a real estate transaction from offer to contract, navigating through nerve-shattering home inspection and title clearance concerns, maintaining constant contact with lenders, conducting the actual closing, and continuing to advise clients with regard to any post-closing concerns.  John brings a practical and fair-minded approach to the process which has earned him the respect of his clients and peers.