In most cases, a fully funded revocable trust is the most comprehensive way to structure an estate plan. If you have very few assets, or almost all of your assets are retirement accounts, that may not be the case. But for the middle-class people, a revocable trust based estate plan is the best way to go. For a revocable trust to work the way it is intended, it must be funded. You will still get some benefit from an unfunded trust. But you won’t get the most out of it.
A lot of my clients come in with an old unfunded trust. Most of them don't know why the trust wasn't funded. If your revocable trust has outright distributions at death, there are little or no benefits to having an unfunded trust. But if you are leaving assets to your beneficiaries in trust, an unfunded trust gives you flexibility and some level of privacy.
Some estate planning attorneys will say that if you are not going to fund the trust, you may as well have a will. But I approach this a different way. If you are going to do a Will with trusts for your beneficiaries, why not make a separate trust the beneficiary of your will? You can either have a long will with a trust that will be permanently on display in the Clerk's office, or you can have a pour over will that says "I leave all of my probate assets to the trustee of my revocable trust." With a fully-funded trust, everything remains private. With an unfunded trust, your assets will be listed in an inventory in the court file. But who gets them and how they get them will not be public.
A trust-based plan also gives you flexibility. Just because you don't fund your trust now doesn't mean you never will. If you have a will-based plan, you can't decide to fund the trust later, because the trust is not funded until your death. But with a trust-based plan, you can fund it at any time. If you partially fund the trust, you can make modifications later without having to re-title the assets. This means that if you do not believe that you can make the necessary investment to create and fund a trust will all the features that you would like, you can still create a simple revocable trust now, partially fund it, and make modifications in the future.
If you decide to make your trust the beneficiary of a life insurance policy or retirement account, naming sub-trusts created under a revocable trust are safer beneficiaries than testamentary trusts created under a will. The revocable trust exists now. It will continue to exist unless you revoke it. But if you leave assets payable to a trust created under your will, that trust may never be created. If you change your will and forget to change your beneficiaries, or if your will is never located, the asset will be paid to your estate. Both life insurance and inherited
IRAs are protected from your creditors. If they are paid to your estate, you lose that protection. There could also be serious tax issues if your retirement accounts have to be paid to your estate. Also, some financial institutions will not allow testamentary trusts created under a will to be beneficiaries of their accounts.
It is always best to fund the trust. But if you choose not to re-title assets now, you should consider an estate plan that gives you the flexibility to maximize its potential at a later time.