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To inherit, you have to earn their trust

"You'd better listen to your mother..."

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: How about this for something to be thankful for? Wall Street's taking a break. So at least the stock market can't gobble up any more of your investments today. As we've watched our self worth dwindle away this year, estate planning has taken on a whole new meaning. But if you haven't thought about it, it's probably more important than ever that we now get our affairs in order.

Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith learned that her parents did so, making sure to leave a little something for her and for some people not yet born.

Stacey Vanek-Smith made that discovery as her parents started getting their affairs in order.


Stacey Vanek-Smith: So here's the deal: I'm 31 years old, I am not married and I do not have children.

So imagine my surprise when my mom calls a few months back to tell me she and dad have set up a generation-skipping trust. Basically, that means they are setting aside a chunk of money that will exclusively be available to my theoretical offspring.

Translation? [ticking clock]

The more I thought about it, the more freaked out I got.

Eileen Gallo: I think it's very natural for you to have that kind of reaction.

That's Eileen Gallo. She's a psychotherapist who specializes in issues of money and inheritance. She says wills and trusts are often very fraught. She advised me to be understanding and try to get more information from my parents:

Gallo: They want in their lifetime probably to experience grandchildren and they're giving you the little push, but you may not want to be pushed. You need to be the one to communicate with them.

So, I asked my mom for the skinny:

Stacy's Mom: It was set up for your 30th birthday, the idea was to have everything in place by the time you were 30.

Vanek-Smith: Did you think I would already have kids?

Stacy's Mom: Well, you don't know, but you hope.

Vanek-Smith: I'm sorry Mom!

Did I mention I'm an only child?

Anyway, mom said with college tuition prices and housing prices being what they are, it would be a good idea to set aside money for my hypothetical kids.

Vanek-Smith: Did you guys worry at all about the fact that there aren't actual grandchildren?

Stacy's Mom: When the trust was set up the assumption basically was and is that there will be.

Yeah, my parents are not subtle people. But personal finance expert Jordan Goodman says from a financial perspective, my parents are just being smart:

Jordan Goodman: It is a way of transferring assets without estate tax to your grandkids as well as to you. So, yes, there is a definite tax savings.

Goodman says if my parents just left money to me, it would be taxed 45 percent when I got it and it would be taxed 45 percent again when I gave it to my kids. The trust will sidestep a lot of those taxes. And if I don't have kids, I can leave the money to someone else when I die.

I asked Goodman how he would recommend handling a situation like this.

Goodman: I think you should please them. Have a kid. That would be the best solution to this entire estate planning problem.

Vanek-Smith: Would that be your advice from a personal finance perspective?

Goodman: It only takes 9 months, so you should go for it.

Clearly my parents got to him first -- and this type of parental bribery is basically driving a whole new category in estate planning. They're called incentive trusts and basically it means the kids have to jump through certain hoops to get their parents' money.

Estate planning lawyer Jon Gallo says about a quarter of his clients have asked him about incentive plans. He says sometimes getting money is contingent on a college degree, marrying a person of a particular faith, earning a certain amount of money -- and it gets a lot weirder:

Jon Gallo: I'm aware of one incentive trust in which the beneficiary's weight was taken into consideration. If she weighed more than a specified amount, the income from the trust would be cut back, because her father was always concerned that she was going to be obese.

Seriously? Is that even legal?

Jon Gallo: It is legal and there is a Twinkie trust out there, I can assure you.

Gallo says he's not a huge fan of incentive trusts but, he says, that hasn't stopped them from becoming hugely popular:

Jon Gallo: People tend to create incentive trusts out of fear. It really depends upon what is the particular issue that the parent is facing. Is the parent concerned about drug abuse? Is the parent concerned about the child not being entrepreneurial? It's really an attempt to extend parental authority beyond the grave.

Suddenly the fact that my parents set up a fund for fictional grandkids doesn't seem so bad. At least it doesn't involve getting on a scale every month. And, anyway, Mom assures me that she and dad are just trying to make life easier for me:

Stacy's Mom: The idea was to be able to positively affect both your life and your children's lives.

Vanek-Smith: If I have children, right?

Stacy's Mom: Mmhmm.

Translation? [ticking clock]

Where's a Twinkie when you need one?

In Los Angeles, I'm Stacey Vanek-Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.

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