The law of trusts and estates is generally considered the body of law which governs the management of personal affairs and the disposition of property of an individual in anticipation of the event of such person's incapacity or death, also known as the law of successions in civil law. Its techniques are also used to fulfil the wishes of philanthropic bequests or gifts through the creation, maintenance and supervision of charitable trusts.
In some jurisdictions, such as the United States, it can overlap with the area that has come to be known as elder law that deals not only with estate planning but other issues that face the elderly, such as home care, long term care insurance or social security or disability benefits. There may also be overlap with areas of the law touching on End-of-life issues, not solely for the elderly, but also persons with HIV/AIDS, or other terminal conditions.
What is an estate?
At common law, an estate consisted of the tangible assets of real and personal property which belong to a natural person. More recently, the concept of an estate has been expanded to encompass any thing of value to which the deceased person was or might have been entitled to claim during his or her lifetime. The property of the estate must either be bequeathed through a will or transferred through the laws of intestacy if there is no will. A will is the most commonly used legal instrument for the distribution of the property of a deceased person. Before property can be disposed of pursuant to the terms of a will, the will must be submitted to a probate court having jurisdiction of the estate of the deceased. Probate is often considered a relatively lengthy and expensive process, albeit one which may provide greater safeguards with regard to the rights of a deceased person's beneficiaries, though probate often is contested by creditors or disgruntled members of the family of the deceased who feel they have not received their fair share of the deceased's property.
Uses of trusts
In order to expedite the process of transferring assets to intended beneficiaries, some people choose to arrange their property so that it can bypass the probate process upon their deaths. For example, placing property into a trust before death (as opposed to a testamentary trust) will often allow the accomplishment of the objectives of property distribution without coming under the jurisdiction of a court and the possible redistribution after a lengthy contested probate process and trial. Similarly, jointly held property (in common law systems), life insurance, annuities, US Tax Code section 401(k) Retirement Plans or Individual Retirement Accounts (also known as Registered Retirement Savings Plans in Canada) will also avoid probate as these devices allow property to transfer to beneficiaries outside the probate process.
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