Who needs to be a millionaire? When their hearts are in the right place, even less-prosperous Americans can bless their favorite charities with important money — without breaking their bank accounts.

You simply need a charitable trust to get the job done.

Attorneys and accountants are more than willing to help clients establish these legal programs. But the first step doesn’t begin with financial statements. Bruce Bickel, senior vice president and managing director of the PNC Advisors’ Private Foundation Management Services, asks potential philanthropists two probing questions before jumping to the practical questions:

1. What legacy do you want to leave? Do you want to be an art patron? Champion youth? Reward entrepreneurial spirit? Some goals lend themselves to charitable endeavors more than others.

2. Which values do you want to perpetuate to the next generation? You are what you emphasize, so get on a soapbox with your money to promote integrity, for instance, and society measures your family name by its integrity.

“Charitable trusts are a wonderful planning mechanism, but this is really a heart issue,” Bickel says.

Once you’ve determined whether your desires suit a long-term dedication to charity, plunge into income figures to determine which vehicle is right for you:

Charitable Lead Trust: In this case, the charities receive the interest from your gift for a set period — typically 10 to 20 years. At that time, whatever is left in the trust goes to a noncharitable beneficiary, such as your children or yourself.

Estate planners recommend this track for people with substantial wealth to stash assets whose value will undoubtedly appreciate in the future. This way, that increased value escapes any taxation in the donor’s estate. Austin Wilkie, a partner with New York City-based Holland & Knight LLP, recommends his clients think cash or securities, however, rather than real estate and other tangible personal property. The latter, he notes, carry deeper tax complications in how they are established and invested.

Overall, this route carries fewer tax advantages than other charitable trusts because you don’t surrender full responsibility.

Charitable Remainder Trust: In a mirror image of the lead trust, the remainder setup sends an annual interest payout to the donor, then hands the asset to the charity at the term’s end. Your trustee can sell appreciated assets sheltered under this umbrella without paying capital gains taxes.

“It’s a good middle ground — the donor assures he has something to live on,” Wilkie says.

You can choose how you want those interest payments: in a steady stream to count on (annuity trust) or ride the market fluctuations (uni-trust). Advisers aim for 5.3 percent return on investment if you choose the roller coaster version, but nothing is guaranteed, Bickel reminds.

Either route beats merely writing a check to your favorite 501(c) (3), advisers say, because you keep your fingers in the mix — the IRS is the one to suffer setbacks. Just how much depends on individual circumstances as Uncle Sam relies on a table charting age and fair-market value of the assets on the day you set up the trust to figure the government’s take.

Plan also to pay annual administration fees to maintain this trust. Again, the amounts depend on a range of individual choices from the type of charitable trust to the payout terms. Some managers charge on a percentage scale: a percentage annually based on the value of the gift as of Jan. 1 each year, plus a separate fixed fee.

If such management fees scare you off, you can’t afford a charitable trust in the first place, advisers agree.

“In general, it takes less money to create a charitable trust than any other kind,” says Megan Wiles, executive director of The Legacy Fund.

Just how much you need depends on the manager as well. Some universities, for example, set up their planned giving management at $50,000 in the account. Large banks typically want to see $1 million before they bother to mess with it, Bickel says.

Wilkie doesn’t see why anyone would want to set up a charitable trust for less than $500,000. Wiles puts the entry point at $100,000, especially if you choose the remainder trust route, but her organization will work with $25,000 trusts.

“People think if they hold on to their money until they die, they’ll have better use of it,” Bickel says. “That’s a myth.”

To illustrate, pretend you have $10 million. If you control it through portfolio investments and savings vehicles during your lifetime, it must go through probate at your death before your charity sees its cut.

“Probate will take more of that money than if you gave it away alive,” he adds.

Charitable trusts hand you more flexibility to dictate who gets what, and you can even change your mind on the beneficiary, which you can’t do if you took the less complicated way out and wrote a check.

The only thing you can’t do is dissolve the trust. It’s a legally inviolate lock box, which is why advisers drill their clients on contingency plans in case of stock market dips, company bankruptcies and other financial catastrophes. And it’s not to be confused with an investment vehicle — establishing a charitable trust won’t leave you richer than if you hadn’t given the money, Wilkie points out.

“The rule is that charitable decisions are the first to change and the last to be made,” he comments. “This is truly discretionary income, after you send the kids to college and secure your retirement lifestyle.”

Prime candidates aren’t just the over-60 retirement crowd. Bickel see this as a potential fit for anyone who suddenly inherits money or finds a windfall in a divorce settlement.

“For someone in that 40- to 50-years-old range, in their maximum earning power, charitable trusts can help them with the tax base for the rest of their life,” Bickel says. “And they are young enough to lend their energies to perpetuating the values and hallmark they want the family name to stand for.”

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