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The Pros and Cons of Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts

Posted by James Burns | May 23, 2024 | 0 Comments

When it comes to estate planning, creating a trust is a pivotal decision. According to a 2020 survey by, only 32% of Americans have an estate plan, such as a will or a trust. This statistic highlights the importance of understanding your options. Trusts, particularly, come in many forms, but revocable and irrevocable trusts are among the most common and misunderstood. Choosing the right one can significantly influence your financial and personal legacy.


Revocable Trusts


A revocable trust, also known as a living trust, allows you to maintain control over your assets during your lifetime. You can alter or dissolve the trust at any time, giving you flexibility as your circumstances change.



  1. Flexibility: The primary advantage of a revocable trust is its flexibility. You can modify the terms of the trust or revoke it entirely if your situation or intentions change.


  1. Avoid Probate: Assets held in a revocable trust bypass the probate process, which can save time and money after your death, and keeps your affairs private.


  1. No Tax Benefits: Revocable trusts offer no tax advantages. The assets in the trust are still considered part of your estate for tax purposes.


  1. Limited Asset Protection: Since you maintain control over the assets, they can be subject to creditors in the event of a lawsuit or debt collection.


Actionable Tip

Consider transferring real estate into a revocable trust. This move can simplify the management of your assets if you become incapacitated and streamline the inheritance process for your beneficiaries.


Mistake to Avoid

Do not neglect to fund the trust. An unfunded or partially funded revocable trust fails to capitalize on its benefits, such as avoiding probate.


Legal Considerations in California

In California, trusts are governed by the California Probate Code. For example, Section 15401 allows for the revocation of a revocable trust by the settlor unless explicitly stated otherwise in the trust instrument. This reflects the flexibility of revocable trusts under state law.


Example to Illustrate

Consider the case of John Doe, a resident of Aliso Viejo, Orange County. John set up a revocable trust including his primary residence and investment accounts. Years later, after a significant change in his financial situation, he was able to amend the trust to better serve his new circumstances, showcasing the flexibility of revocable trusts.



Irrevocable Trusts


Once established, an irrevocable trust cannot be modified or dissolved without the consent of the trust's beneficiaries. This type of trust is often used to minimize estate taxes or protect assets.



  1. Tax Advantages: Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust removes them from your estate, potentially reducing estate taxes.


  1. Asset Protection: Assets in an irrevocable trust are generally shielded from creditors and legal judgments, offering a high level of security.




  1. Loss of Control: By placing assets in an irrevocable trust, you relinquish control, which means you cannot change the trust terms or access the assets if your needs change.


  1. Complexity and Cost: Setting up and maintaining an irrevocable trust can be complex and costly, requiring ongoing legal and administrative support.


Actionable Tip

Use an irrevocable trust for life insurance policies to exclude the death benefits from your taxable estate, potentially saving your beneficiaries from a significant tax burden.


Mistake to Avoid

Avoid setting up an irrevocable trust without a clear understanding of your long-term financial needs. Once established, you cannot retrieve the assets to address unforeseen personal or financial challenges.


Relevant California Case

In the case of Estate of Giraldin, the California Supreme Court held that the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust have standing to sue the trustee for breaches of fiduciary duty that occurred during the settlor's lifetime, emphasizing the importance of trustee responsibilities.


When setting up an irrevocable trust, one of the most significant considerations is the restriction on property transactions. Unlike revocable trusts, where the grantor retains control over the assets and can alter the trust's terms or dissolve it entirely, irrevocable trusts do not offer such flexibility. Once property is transferred into an irrevocable trust, it is generally considered a final action, effectively removing the grantor's direct control over those assets.


Tax Implications and Legal Framework

Gift Tax Considerations: When property is transferred into an irrevocable trust, it may trigger a gift tax. The value of the property at the time of the transfer is assessed, and if it exceeds the annual gift tax exclusion amount, a gift tax may be levied.


This is a critical aspect to consider, as it can have significant financial implications for the grantor. Estate Tax Benefits: One of the primary reasons for transferring assets into an irrevocable trust is to reduce the size of the grantor's taxable estate. Since the assets are no longer owned by the grantor, they are not included in the estate for tax purposes upon the grantor's death, potentially leading to substantial estate tax savings.


Grantor Trust Rules: Under certain conditions, even though a trust is irrevocable, the grantor may still be considered the owner of the trust assets for income tax purposes. This is often the case if the grantor retains certain powers, such as the power to substitute trust assets with assets of equal value (known as the power of substitution under IRC Section 675).


This can lead to a situation where trust is irrevocable for estate tax purposes but not for income tax purposes.


Legal Restrictions and Flexibility

Irrevocable Nature: Once established, the terms of an irrevocable trust generally cannot be changed, which means the grantor must carefully consider the trust's provisions and the trustee's powers before setup. This lack of flexibility can be a significant drawback if the grantor's financial situation or intentions change after the trust is created.


Selling or Gifting Property into the Trust: The irrevocable trust's terms dictate whether and how property can be sold or added. Typically, the grantor cannot directly sell property owned by the trust without the trustee's involvement and adherence to the trust's terms, which may specify conditions under which assets can be sold or new assets added.


Practical Considerations and Examples

Example Scenario: Suppose a grantor establishes an irrevocable trust and transfers their primary residence into it. Later, if the grantor wishes to sell the home and move to a different state, they cannot do so without the consent of the trustee and according to the trust's terms. This scenario illustrates the loss of control and flexibility that comes with an irrevocable trust.


Strategic Use of Irrevocable Trusts: Despite these restrictions, irrevocable trusts can be strategically used for asset protection and tax planning. For instance, high-net-worth individuals might use irrevocable trusts to shield assets from creditors or to ensure that their estate does not exceed the federal estate tax exemption threshold, thereby minimizing their estate tax liability.



Choosing between a revocable and irrevocable trust depends largely on your personal circumstances, financial goals, and need for control. Each has its merits and drawbacks, and the right choice varies from one individual to another. If you're in Aliso Viejo, Orange County, or anywhere in California, and need expert advice tailored to your unique situation, consider reaching out to the Law Office of James Burns. With over 24 years of experience in handling estate planning, James Burns can help you navigate the complexities of trusts and ensure your legacy is protected. Contact him today at (949) 305-8642 or visit for more information.

About the Author

James Burns

Estate Planning, Asset Protection, Business and Real Estate Transactions, nutraceutical Law and franchising:


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