Trusts vs. Annuities: Leaving Assets to Heirs

May 25, 2015

Leaving assets can be particularly tricky with spendthrift heirs or those with personal issues. Here are two financial vehicles to consider.

It is common that one or more of your heirs may be less than responsible with money. They may just not have the discipline, education, or experience to deal with a large inheritance. Or, they may have trouble with substance abuse or even "shopping abuse."

In these instances, most parents will seek to control how their children (the usual heirs in question) can obtain money after the parents are gone. The two main ways to have this control are the use of trusts and annuities.

Most commonly, a trust allows a trustee to control the outflow of funds for your heir in a way that you specify in the trust document. The trust itself may spell out how much money can come out in any given time period, while putting restrictions on if the child is not working, or not in school, or engaged in substance abuse. The trust usually will usually allow the trustee to make discretionary distributions in cases of distress or great need. Often these trusts have substance abuse clauses which prevent distributions if drug tests or behavior suggests substance abuse.

One big problem with a trust is that someone has to be the trustee. If you choose a family member (as do most people), prepare that person to be potentially endlessly nagged for more money by the heir. You'll need a strong and fair personality.

You could choose a corporate trustee instead (an attorney or trust company), but this choice carries significant cost and may be less likely to act like you would in similar circumstances.

Specifying an immediate annuity from an insurance company is an alternative to a trust. Your will could specify that any particular heir would inherit an annuity purchased at the time of death that would guarantee a certain monthly income for life. An inflation adjusted annuity can be used if a long time horizon is anticipated.

One potential problem with using an annuity is that many of these vehicles can be sold on the secondary market for a lump sum. This would violate the very purpose of using the annuity in the first place. In this case, you could consider putting the annuity itself into a trust that would prevent its sale for cash.

Neither choice for leaving assets to a spendthrift heir is perfect. I'd favor the trust approach for its increased flexibility, but do appreciate the difficulty of finding the right person to be a trustee.