Will vs. Trust: An Overview

“You can’t take it with you when you go.” While this familiar statement is true, you can and should do your best to control your assets from beyond the grave. If you are unable to do so, there may be obstacles to managing your estate. Those obstacles may significantly reduce the benefits your heirs would otherwise enjoy.

Possessions and money passing from one spouse to the other are generally not an issue. The unlimited marital deduction provision within the United States Estate and Gift Tax Law allows the passing of wealth to a surviving spouse without incurring gift or estate tax liabilities. 

The transfer process becomes much more involved when wealth is passed to a subsequent generation. If assets that are held individually are properly titled, this process should be seamless. However, financial planners have seen some significant mistakes on the titling of assets held individually, as well as beneficiary designations that would be sure to upset even the happiest of homes. 

For the purposes of this article, we will examine the transfer of assets to a subsequent generation—children, grandchildren, etc. Of the various situations dealt with in estate-transfer conversations, some outstanding ones include the following cases:

  • A person’s ex-spouse who was listed as a beneficiary on an account that held significant assets
  • A multimillionaire who had no estate transfer plan in place
  • A multimillionaire with 23 accounts held at more than seven brokerages with eight different advisors with a trust that was funded only with property 

What is certain is that a vast fortune could easily be imperiled if the holder of such wealth does not consider the dynamics of an estate transfer.

Key Takeaways

  • Whether you choose a will or a trust, you should seek the advice of professional advisors (tax, investment, and legal).
  • Trusts offer more control of assets, but they are more expensive, can be tedious to set up, and must be actively managed.
  • If you do not have an estate-transfer plan, the state in which you live and the federal government will have one for you. This means making such a plan a priority now can save money and precious time later.

What Is a Will?

A will, also called a testamentary will, is a legally enforceable document stating how you want your affairs handled and assets distributed after you die. It is an important component of estate planning.

If you have minor-aged children at home, it's important to have a will that appoints guardianship of your children. If a guardian is not appointed at the time of death, your surviving family will have to seek help in a probate court to have a guardian appointed for your children. The person appointed may not be one whom you would have wanted to be entrusted with your kids.  

You should also consider how you will pass a portion of your estate to a minor child through a will. A will places your decisions in the hands of the judge presiding over your estate transfer. Your testamentary will carries out your wishes from beyond the grave. A will also allows you to give insight and direction over the handling of assets your beneficiaries will receive

Within reason, you can address how you would like them to use what you have left them. While children, natural or adopted, have a statutory right to inherit, a will allows you to disinherit a child if you choose to do so (check your state laws for the specific details about this). A person can disinherit a spouse as well, under certain circumstances. However, you will need to be aware of the laws governing your state—whether it is a common law state, a community property state, or an equitable distribution state; a person may only disinherit a spouse in a community property state. Each has a different set of stipulations on what and how much can be disinherited. Note, too, that a person can only disinherit a spouse or child through a will.

Seek legal counsel in the creation of a will. A will can be effective in an estate transfer and other legal proceedings after death, but there are drawbacks of which you should be aware. Your estate will become part of the public record, for example, and anything left by a will must go through probate court. Also, probate attorneys can be expensive and cannot be avoided, except in California and Wisconsin.

What Is a Trust?

A trust is another method of estate transfer—a fiduciary relationship in which you give another party authority to handle your assets for the benefit of a third party, your beneficiaries.

A trust can be created for a variety of functions, and there are many types of trusts. Overall, however, there are two categories: living and testamentary. A will can be used to create a testamentary trust. You can also create a trust for the primary purpose of avoiding probate court, called a revocable living trust.

Let's focus on a revocable living trust for the purpose of estate transfer. Like a will, a trust will require you to transfer property after death to loved ones. It is called a living trust because it is created while the property owner, or trustor, is alive. It is revocable, as it may be changed during the life of the trustor. The trustor maintains ownership of the property held by the trust while the trustor is alive.

The trust becomes operational at the trustor’s death. Unlike a will, a living trust passes property outside of probate court. There are no court or attorney fees after the trust is established. Your property can be passed immediately and directly to your named beneficiaries. 

Trusts tend to be more expensive than wills to create and maintain. A person called a trustee will be named in the document to control the distribution of assets following the wishes of the trustor, in accordance with the trust document and its mandates. This is also an effective way to control the passing of your estate beyond the grave. 

To be valid, a trust must identify the following: the trustor, the trustee, the successor trustee, and the trust beneficiaries.

A declaration of trust will also provide the basic terms of the trust. Your estate stays private and passes directly to your heirs, you do not pay a probate attorney or court costs, and your loved ones may be able to avoid being tied up in probate court for what could be a year or more. From this planner’s perspective, a trust can be a fantastic choice for estate transfer.

Trusts Could Keep You Out of Probate Court

One stop you should try to avoid on the estate-transfer train is probate court. This is where your heirs could spend months sorting out your estate if your plans for transfer are not efficiently laid out. You could easily lose an additional 2-4% of your estate due to attorney fees and court costs. 

Probate court is the section of the judicial system responsible for settling wills, trusts, conservatorships, and guardianships. After death, this court might examine your testamentary will, which is a legal document used to transfer your estate, appoint guardians for minor children, select will executors, and sometimes set up trusts for your survivors.

Your executor would still be responsible for sorting out the estate, which could take 6 to 18 months depending on the intricacies. Imagine your eldest child spending the next year and a half traveling back and forth to court hearings when they should be mourning your passing. It doesn’t sound fun, but it’s a possibility if you haven't left a clear and well-drawn will and/or trust documents.