In the world of estate planning, wills and trusts often take center stage. They’re kind of like siblings (without all the fighting). Both are legal tools that transfer your stuff to those you love.
Overview: Will vs. Trust
The main difference is that one is in effect while you’re still alive and the other one takes hold after you die. Trusts and wills, that is. Not siblings. (Just to be clear.)
There are a few more important distinctions you should know about. Let’s go over each one, starting with the basics, so you can decide what’s best for you.
What Is a Will?
A will is a legal document that puts in writing what you want to happen when you die. It outlines things like who you want to get your stuff, your money and guardianship of your kids or pets.
There are many different types of wills. But for most people, a simple will is enough. In fact, for 95% of people, a will is all you need to establish a rock-solid estate plan—one that protects your family if something ever happens to you (and it will, eventually at least).
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If you have less than $1 million in assets, you can just stop right here and get yourself a will. (Unless you really want to learn about living trusts as a kind of hobby. More power to you!)
If you do think you might be in that 5% of people who need more than a will, keep reading.
What Is a Trust?
Trusts come in lots of different forms—close to a dozen in fact. So let’s focus on the most common ones and answer the question, What does a trust do?
A living trust allows you to transfer your assets to loved ones quickly and easily. It’s “living” because it’s in effect while you’re alive, as opposed to a will, which only kicks into gear after you’re gone. You can put in things like bank or savings accounts, cars, real estate, art, jewelry and even intellectual property in a living trust. However, even though those assets are named inside your trust, they're not accessible to others until after your death.
A revocable trust just means you can change the terms of the trust. Irrevocable? Yep, you guessed it. You can’t change the terms. For example, in an irrevocable trust, once you name the beneficiaries for your property, the names of those beneficiaries are set in stone and can’t be changed.
Revocable trusts are the most common, but even making changes to a revocable trust takes a lot of paperwork. Fun fact: Revocable trusts magically transform into irrevocable trusts after your death.
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What’s Covered in a Will vs. Trust?
So, what sets them apart?
One of the most important differences between wills and trusts is the ability to name a guardian for your minor children. You can name a legal guardian in your will, but you can’t in a trust. So even if you have a trust, you still need a will to make sure your kids are taken care of after you die.
Another important distinction between the two is that, unlike a will, a trust allows you to skip probate court. Probate court cases can be lengthy and costly, so skipping them is a big deal. If your estate gets mixed up in probate court because a loved one is contesting the will, it could mean your family has to spend the next year heading to court while grieving. Not fun.
But remember, if your will is clear and you don’t have a huge estate (or if you have a lot of debt) probate won’t be a huge hassle. And you probably don’t need a trust.
And while we’re on the subject of probate court, let’s talk about some family stuff.
There’s a little crazy in every family. You know who they are in your family (if you don’t, it might be you.) But some families deal with more than their fair share.
Wills are best for families that struggle with trust issues and tension between family members because probate court can resolve any issues. On the other hand, families who can handle healthy conflict and have a lot of confidence in each other are better off with a trust since they don’t need a probate court to babysit them.
And if you’re wondering if you can have both a trust and a will, the answer is yes. In fact, most people who have a trust have a will too.
How Much Does It Cost to Set Up a Will vs. Trust?
In general, trusts can be more complicated and expensive to set up and maintain than wills. The exact cost depends on the type of trust, your location, and how complex the document is.
But remember that even though trusts might be more expensive up front, they could save you money in the long run by avoiding probate court.
Wills, on the other hand, are generally easier to create and cost less to carry out. So, they cost less up-front than a trust. Again though, the ultimate cost of a will depends on how simple or complicated it is.
Will vs. Trust: Which Is Best?
Now comes the big question: Should you get a trust, a will or (drumroll please) . . . both? It really boils down to personal choice.
First, take a big-picture look at your needs and your overall life circumstances.
- Just get a will if you’re like the average person with a few kids and a house. You won’t need a lawyer unless there’s something really complicated about your situation. You can set up a will in just a few minutes yourself online. That means no more excuses. Get a will!
- Just get a trust if you’re older, your kids are grown, and your estate is worth at least $1 million. This way, you can avoid probate in a way that wills don’t allow.
- Get both a will and a living trust if you have an estate on the larger side and have dependents. (Remember, the will fills in that guardianship gap.) And if you do get both, don’t worry about them bumping into each other. They’re separate legal instruments and there are usually no conflicts between them (unlike siblings). If there is a legitimate conflict, the trust overrides the will.
Here's a simple chart that outlines the pros and cons.
So, let’s wrap it all up. The main difference between a will and a trust is that everyone needs a will, but not everyone needs a trust. Trusts can be more than you need, but they can also be a great tool if you have a larger estate.
If you’re in the 95% of people who don’t need a trust, just get yourself a will. You’ll feel so much better knowing your stuff will go to the right people and that your family will be looked after for many years to come.