Leaving Money Wisely to a Spendthrift Heir

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A common estate-planning question is whether it makes sense to leave inheritances with strings attached. My typical answer is "it depends." It's natural to want your legacy to be used wisely, but trying to control from beyond the grave can have unintended consequences.

One approach is the "I won't care when I'm dead" philosophy. Indeed, an inheritance is ultimately the heir's responsibility. It's not only difficult but may even be emotionally unhealthy to try to protect heirs from themselves.

Others may want an inheritance used for only certain expenses, like education, a home, or to help fund retirement. If the initial recipient won't use it in that way, it can go to someone who will put it toward the purpose the giver wants to support.

Perhaps the most common reason for wanting to control a legacy is a spendthrift heir. Giving a chronic overspender an inheritance in hope that it will help change their money behavior is almost always magical thinking. Most lump-sum inheritances disappear within a few years in the control of an overspender.

In my experience, parents of someone with a lifetime pattern of financial chaos and crisis don't usually want to disinherit that child completely. They commonly want to protect such heirs from themselves. Their goal is often to provide the heir an income but safeguard the inheritance in hopes of having something left for grandchildren.

One way to accomplish that goal is to leave the money in a "spendthrift" trust. An independent trustee invests the money and oversees the distributions. The money in the trust is beyond the control of the heir and protected from any claims of creditors. The distributions can be very rigid. For example, the trust can distribute 3% of the principal annually, in equal monthly sums, with no provisions for any other distributions. Using a formula like this almost assures there will be something to pass on to the grandchildren upon the death of the child. It can be a win/win for everyone.

The downside to the spendthrift trust is the cost. Trustee fees often start around $5,000 a year and go up from there. My rule of thumb, which isn’t one-size-fits-all, is that the trustee fee needs to be 1% or less of the principal. A fee of $5,000 only makes sense if the inheritance is $500,000 or more.