It’s Hard to Feel Empowered With a Secret Trust Fund

I’m talking to people with trust funds about their trust funds.

Logan Sachon: Tell me about you and your trust fund, Person With a Trust Fund I’m Going to Call Janet Funk Even Though That Is Not Your Name.

Janet Funk: I’m 33, married, have young children. I’m a technical writer making about $65K a year — which is twice the median income in my city — and my husband makes about the same. Our family lives modestly. We have a credit card, car payment. We worry about how to pay tuition for our young kids’ schools.

I have a trust fund that was originally set up for me by my grandfather in the early ’80s and has a complex set of ramifications that dictates how the money is allocated and distributed.

My trust fund was set up to be released to me in three phases. One-third when I was 25, half of what was left when I was 30, and I’ll get the balance when I am 35, which is in two years.

LS: When did you find out about it?

JF: I first knew that some money was there when I was applying for college, but I didn’t know how much or where it was. My parents told me that “grandpa money” would be covering my college expenses in entirety, and I shouldn’t worry too much about tuition charges when picking a school. Still, I got merit-based scholarships and the “grandpa money” covered the rest.

By the time I was 25, I knew there was more money than just for school. That’s when I got my first allocation from the trust — a check for $45K. We decided to use my allocation that year as a downpayment for our first house (about $30K) and put the rest in a college plan for our daughter ($15K).

LS: You weren’t tempted to spend it?

JF: My whole life I never had access to this money, so I just put it somewhere else essentially that I couldn’t access it. I’m glad I did it. But there have been a couple of times that I have asked my mother to “release” extra money, for house repairs, which she has. But I hate asking. I just hate it.

LS: So your mom still controls the trust.

JF: Right. My mother thinks that being blissfully ignorant makes my life less stressful. She’s wrong. I’m the kind of person that wants to think long-term. That wants to plan ahead for my children’s future by having numbers to make well-informed decisions.

Based on the stipulations for the allocations I’ve received so far, I think the value of my trust after college expenses was probably about $200K — but I don’t really know, even now. I’ve never seen a statement or a balance.

I’m still very resentful about being in the dark about my trust. It makes me feel like a petulant teenager when I think about it sometimes. I’m 33! I made it this far! I’m doing great! But I just have to lay down my ego, and just let her keep being my financial controller in this aspect of my life. It was hard for me to swallow for a while. Ironically, at age 33, with two years to go, I’ve finally just let that go. Sorta.

All those years of “potential mistrust” kind of get to you. But I also know that it was my mother’s father that set all this up, and she is dutiful about his wishes. She had the “power” to just write me a check on my 18th birthday and forgo all the trust rules, but she stuck to it. Because that’s what my grandfather wanted. And I respect her for that.

LS: I’m surprised you have a balance on a credit card.

We could pay it all off, but we don’t. Because we’d still run it up again. I want to chip away at our $5K of credit card debt, and look forward to having it paid off. Maybe it’ll be all the more sweet when we do, because I’ll know I didn’t take the easy way out, and just throw trust fund cash at it. We just try to live like the money in the trust isn’t there. It’s a cushion, and I hope we’ll never ever REALLY need it.

LS: So do you think about the money? Talk about it?

JF: My husband struggles with my lack of communication about money. He also thinks it’s ridiculous that we have postponed a family Disney vacation because we just don’t have the extra funds. I do think my grandfather who earned this money would certainly smile if I used $5K to take my family to Disney World.

Parents have to be confident that they’ll raise their kids to be responsible with money, whether it’s 20 bucks, 200K, or 2 million. But I guess the harder question is how to do that. I have three young kids. Chances are they won’t be getting a trust fund. My parents gift them each about $5K a year that goes directly into their 529 college funds. I want them to grow up not having anxiety about finances and be able to make informed decisions about money. Is that possible? I hope so.

I don’t want to sound whiny or entitled. But, it’s so important to feel empowered by information. And with secret trust funds, that’s really hard to do.