Trusts vs. Wills: Which Is Right for You?

Understanding Trusts and Wills

Definition and Purpose of a Trust

A trust is a fiduciary arrangement that allows a third party, or trustee, to hold assets on your behalf. Put simply, a trust is a legal entity created to manage, protect, and pass on assets according to your wishes. When you put your assets into a trust, they no longer belong to you. They technically belong to the trust until they officially change ownership.

The primary purpose of a trust is to ensure that your assets are distributed in a manner that reflects their intentions. They also offer benefits such as tax savings and probate avoidance. Trusts can be customized to suit various needs, making them a versatile tool in estate planning. For instance, you can set them up for charitable giving. You can also create a specific trust to care for a special needs family member.

You can use a trust to manage and protect wealth for future generations. As a financial entity, the trust can make investments, and it can buy and sell property. The trustee manages these transactions according to the trust’s terms.

Definition and Purpose of a Will

A will, on the other hand, is a legal document that outlines how your assets should be distributed after your death. It is the cornerstone of traditional estate planning, and it serves as the last statement of how you want your property distributed. The will can name an executor who will be responsible for carrying out these wishes. The executor can also appoint guardians for minor children.

A will goes through probate, which is a public and sometimes lengthy process. However, it is a fundamental tool for ensuring that your legacy is honored, and your loved ones are taken care of according to your wishes.

Evaluating Your Estate Planning Needs

Assessing Asset Types and Values

When estate planning, you must evaluate the types and values of assets you own. This assessment will guide you in choosing the appropriate way to handle your estate. You need a vehicle for managing your estate, be it a trust or a will.

Different assets require different strategies. For instance, real estate might benefit from a trust to avoid probate, but you can adequately address simpler assets in a will.

Understanding the value of your assets also helps in tax planning. It can also influence whether to consider more complex estate planning tools that can protect your wealth for future generations.

Considering Family Dynamics and Beneficiaries

Family structure and your beneficiaries’ needs are significant factors when deciding between a trust and a will. If you have a blended family, own a business, or have loved ones with special needs, a trust may be your best solution. It can provide specific directives to manage these unique situations. Trusts can also protect assets from beneficiaries' creditors, and they can ensure that a spendthrift relative does not squander their inheritance.

In contrast, a will is more suitable for straightforward family situations where you don’t need the nuanced control a trust provides.

Key Differences Between Trusts and Wills


One key difference between trusts and wills is the level of privacy they offer. A trust is a private document that does not go through probate. Therefore, the distribution of assets is kept out of the public record. This privacy is critical for individuals who wish to keep their financial matters and beneficiary information confidential.

Additionally, avoiding probate can save time and money, making trusts an attractive option for many.

Control During Life and After Death

Trusts also offer a unique level of control over assets. The grantor, or the person creating the trust, can manage assets both during their lifetime and after death. With a revocable living trust, the grantor can retain control over their assets and make changes to the trust as needed. After death, the trust dictates how the assets are managed and distributed. It can include detailed instructions over a long period.

Wills, in contrast, take effect only after death, and they do not offer the same level of detailed control. A will also does not allow you to manage assets during your lifetime. You must manage them directly. The will only distributes them to the appropriate beneficiary.

Pros and Cons of Trusts and Wills

Advantages of Establishing a Trust

Establishing a trust comes with several advantages, including:

  • Providing a quicker distribution of assets to beneficiaries
  • Helping avoid the often lengthy and costly probate process
  • Offering potential tax advantages, particularly for larger estates that are subject to estate taxes
  • Providing support for beneficiaries with special needs without affecting their government assistance
  • Allowing for continuous management of assets, which can be particularly beneficial when you have minor heirs or want to establish a legacy over generations

Drawbacks of Trusts and Considerations

Setting up and maintaining a trust involves complexities and costs. The initial setup can be more expensive and time-consuming than drafting a will, and it often requires assistance from an experienced attorney.

Additionally, managing a trust can require ongoing administrative work. They often include accounting and tax filings, which can be a burden for trustees. You must also make sure that assets are properly titled in the trust’s name of the trust. Any minor oversight can negate some of the benefits of having a trust in the first place.

Benefits of Writing a Will

Writing a will is simpler and more straightforward. It's generally less expensive to create a will than to establish a trust.

Furthermore, a will is sufficient for many people's estate planning needs. It allows you to clearly express your wishes regarding your assets and the care of any minor children. It's a suitable option for anyone with a smaller estate, and it works well for those who prefer a direct, uncomplicated approach to estate planning. A will does not offer the same level of control or privacy as a trust. Still, it is a reliable and widely recognized legal document that can effectively convey your final wishes.

Limitations of Wills

Wills must go through the probate process. Probate is public, and it makes the details of your estate a matter of public record. This exposure can be undesirable for those who value their privacy.

Probate can also be time-consuming, and it may lead to disputes among beneficiaries. Disputes can be a particular problem if the will lacks clear instructions, or if the family dynamics are complex.

Additionally, beneficiaries can contest a will. Such challenges can further delay the distribution of assets and result in legal fees that diminish the estate's value.

Making the Right Choice for Your Situation

Choosing between a trust and a will depends on various factors, such as:

  • Your age
  • Your health
  • Your level of wealth
  • Your loved ones’ needs

Younger individuals or those with modest assets might find that a will is sufficient for their estate planning needs. However, as one accumulates wealth, or they need specific instructions for asset distribution, a trust might be more appropriate.

Health considerations also influence your estate planning needs. For example, a trust can manage your affairs should you become incapacitated.

You must carefully weigh these factors to make the best choice for your situation.

Consult with Palmer Rodak & Associates when planning your estate. We can assess your situation and help you decide whether a will or a trust is best for you. We can even help you implement both options, depending on your needs. To meet with us, call our office at (760) 573-2223 or contact us online.