Although a single trust and a joint trust are designed for the same basic purpose of leaving property to specific individuals upon the death of the person or persons who created the trust, there are some differences. The primary distinction between a single trust and a joint trust is the number of people who create the trust and manage the trust property. A joint trust, however, can provide tax relief not offered by a single trust for estates worth a considerable amount of money.
A grantor is a person or entity that transfers property to the trust. A single trust is created by a single person who transfers her property to the trust. Thus, a single trust usually features a single grantor. A joint trust is created by two or more persons, usually a married couple. Both spouses transfer their respective property interest into the joint trust. Because property belonging to each spouse is transferred to the joint trust, a joint trust usually has two grantors.
A trustee is a person who holds property in a trust for the benefit of another person. A trustee often is, but need not be, a grantor of the trust. A single trust is usually held by a single trustee. If the trustee is also the person who transferred property to the trust, that person would be both a trustee and a grantor. A joint trust usually has two trustees, who are the two spouses. It is possible to create a single trust with more than one trustee, however. For example, a mother may want to name herself as trustee, as well as her daughter. Although there are two trustees in this example, the trust is still a single trust because it holds only the property that belongs to the mother.
Beneficiaries fall within two classifications: initial beneficiaries and successor beneficiaries. An initial beneficiary is a person who benefits from the trust as soon as the trust is created. A successor beneficiary is a person who benefits from the trust only upon the occurrence of some contingency, usually the death of the initial beneficiary. For example, if a mother creates a trust for her benefit and leaves the trust property to her son upon her death, the mother is an initial beneficiary and her son is a successor beneficiary. The son’s interest in the trust property is contingent on his mother’s death. A single trust usually has only one initial beneficiary, the person who created the trust. A joint trust has two initial beneficiaries, the husband and the wife. Both a single trust and a joint trust may have an unlimited number of successor beneficiaries.
When a person dies, the value of some or all of the property he owned at the time of death must be determined for estate tax purposes. Estate tax, sometimes referred to as “death tax,” is a tax imposed by the federal government and by some states on the value of the property that exceeds an excluded amount. For example, if a person died and left property valued at $6 million, and if the amount excluded from tax was $5 million, the government would assess tax on the $1 million. Joint trusts created by married couples can provide a means of reducing or eliminating the taxed amount that a single trust cannot. This special type of joint trust is referred to as an A/B trust. An A/B trust requires complicated drafting that should only be prepared by an estate planning attorney.