The Key Differences Between Trusts and Wills Explained

Discover key differences between trusts and wills, including tax benefits, probate, and asset distribution, to choose the best estate plan.


Estate planning helps you manage and distribute your assets after you pass away. Two common tools for this are trusts and wills. Understanding the differences between them is key to making the right decision for your needs.

Navigating trusts and wills can be confusing, but it’s essential for protecting your family’s future. Both serve to distribute your assets, but they do so differently and have unique pros and cons.

Quick Comparison:

  • Trusts: Effective immediately, avoid probate, can provide tax benefits.
  • Wills: Simpler, name guardians for children, must go through probate.

Creating the right plan can secure your assets and ease the burden on your loved ones. This article will clarify the key differences to help you make an informed decision.

Understanding Trusts and Wills

When planning your estate, it’s crucial to understand the differences between trusts and wills. Both are tools to distribute your assets, but they work in different ways and have unique implications for probate, estate taxes, and asset distribution.


Probate is the legal process your estate goes through after you die. It includes proving your will’s validity, identifying and inventorying your property, appraising it, paying debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining assets.

  • Wills: Must go through probate. This process can be lengthy, costly, and is a matter of public record.
  • Trusts: Avoid probate if assets are properly transferred to the trust. This keeps the process private and can save time and money.

Example: If you own a house in your name, it will go through probate if you have a will. But if the house is in a trust, it can be transferred directly to your beneficiaries without probate.

Estate Taxes

Estate taxes can significantly impact the value of the assets your beneficiaries receive. The way trusts and wills handle these taxes can vary.

  • Wills: Do not provide any tax benefits. The estate may be subject to federal and state estate taxes if it exceeds certain thresholds.
  • Trusts: Certain types, like irrevocable trusts, can offer tax benefits. For example, assets in an irrevocable trust are generally not included in the taxable estate of the grantor.

Fact: As of 2024, the federal estate tax exemption is $13.61 million for an individual. Estates exceeding this amount are subject to estate taxes.

Asset Distribution

Asset distribution refers to how your property and assets are divided among your beneficiaries.

  • Wills: Clearly outline how assets should be distributed after death. They can also name guardians for minor children, which trusts cannot do.
  • Trusts: Can distribute assets both during your lifetime and after death. They offer more control over how and when beneficiaries receive assets.

Case Study: A parent sets up a revocable living trust to manage their assets. They specify that their children receive the assets at age 25 to ensure they are mature enough to handle them. This level of control is not possible with a simple will.

Summary Table

ProbateAvoids probate if funded properlyMust go through probate
Estate TaxesCan offer tax benefits (irrevocable trusts)No tax benefits
Asset DistributionDuring and after lifetimeAfter death only

Understanding these key differences can help you decide whether a trust or a will is better suited for your estate planning needs.

Next, let’s dive into the various types of trusts and their specific advantages and disadvantages.

Types of Trusts

When planning your estate, it’s crucial to understand the different types of trusts available. Each type has its unique advantages and disadvantages, making them suitable for various situations and goals. Let’s explore the most common types of trusts.

Revocable Trust

A revocable trust, also known as a living trust, is flexible and can be changed or terminated by the grantor at any time during their lifetime.

Avoids probate: Assets in a revocable trust pass outside of probate, saving time and money.
Flexibility: You can modify or revoke the trust as your circumstances change.
Privacy: Unlike wills, the details of a revocable trust are not made public.

No tax benefits: Assets in a revocable trust are included in your taxable estate.
Creditor claims: Assets are not protected from creditors.

Irrevocable Trust

An irrevocable trust cannot be easily altered or terminated once it is established. The grantor gives up control over the assets placed in the trust.

Tax benefits: Assets are removed from the grantor’s taxable estate, potentially reducing estate taxes.
Creditor protection: Assets are generally protected from creditors.

Inflexibility: Once set up, changes are difficult and often impossible.
Loss of control: The grantor cannot manage or control the assets.

Testamentary Trust

A testamentary trust is created through a will and becomes effective upon the grantor’s death. It is commonly used to manage assets for beneficiaries who cannot manage them independently, such as minor children.

Control: Allows specific instructions for asset distribution after death.
Management: Can provide long-term management of assets for beneficiaries.

Probate: The trust must go through the probate process, which can be lengthy and costly.
Public record: Details become public during probate.

Charitable Trust

A charitable trust benefits a charitable organization while providing some financial return to the grantor or other beneficiaries.

Tax deductions: Can offer significant tax deductions based on the value of the donated assets.
Philanthropy: Supports charitable causes.

Irrevocable: Once established, it cannot be easily changed.
Complexity: Requires careful planning and administration.

Special Needs Trust

A special needs trust is designed to provide financial support for individuals with disabilities without affecting their eligibility for government assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Government benefits: Protects eligibility for public assistance programs.
Tailored support: Provides for the unique needs of the beneficiary.

Complexity: Requires careful drafting to comply with legal requirements.
Costs: Can be expensive to set up and maintain.

Understanding these types of trusts can help you choose the right one for your estate planning needs. Whether you’re looking to avoid probate, minimize taxes, or provide for a loved one with special needs, there’s a trust that can meet your specific goals.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Trusts

Avoid Probate

One of the biggest advantages of trusts is that they help you avoid probate. Probate is a lengthy and often costly court process that your estate goes through after you die. By placing your assets in a trust, you can bypass this process entirely, saving your loved ones time and money.

Avoid Probate - trusts wills

Tax Benefits

Trusts, especially irrevocable trusts, can offer significant tax benefits. When you transfer assets into an irrevocable trust, those assets are no longer considered part of your estate. This can help you avoid or reduce estate taxes. For example, as of 2023, the federal estate tax only applies to estates exceeding the $12.92 million exemption amount. States like Washington have their own exemption amounts and tax rates, which vary.

Creditor Protection

Another advantage of irrevocable trusts is creditor protection. Once assets are transferred to an irrevocable trust, they are generally protected from creditors. This means if you owe money and can’t pay, creditors can’t go after the assets in the trust. However, this protection varies by state and specific circumstances, so it’s essential to consult with a local estate attorney.


While irrevocable trusts offer benefits like tax savings and creditor protection, they come with a significant drawback: irrevocability. Once you create an irrevocable trust, you can’t easily change or revoke it. This lack of flexibility can be a disadvantage if your circumstances change.


Creating and maintaining a trust can be costly. Setting up a trust can range from $139 to $3,000, and maintaining it can cost between $2,500 and $7,000. These costs can be a barrier for some, especially when compared to the relatively lower cost of creating a will.

Cost - trusts wills

Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of trusts can help you decide whether they are the right tool for your estate planning needs. Next, let’s look at the pros and cons of using wills.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Wills

When it comes to estate planning, wills offer several unique benefits and drawbacks. Let’s break down the key points:


Wills are often considered the simplest form of estate planning. They allow you to:

  • Name guardians for minor children: This is crucial if you have young kids. A will lets you designate who will take care of them if something happens to you.
  • Designate where your assets go: You can specify who gets what, from your home to your heirloom jewelry.
  • Specify final arrangements: You can outline your wishes for your funeral or burial.

Creating a will is generally straightforward and can even be done using online tools, making it accessible for most people.

Guardian Appointment

One of the most important aspects of a will is the ability to appoint a guardian for minor children. Without a will, the court decides who will take care of your kids, which might not align with your wishes. This is a significant advantage for parents.

Probate Process

A major drawback of wills is that they usually have to go through probate. Probate is a legal process that:

  • Validates the will: The court ensures that your will is legitimate.
  • Identifies and inventories property: All your assets are listed and appraised.
  • Pays debts and taxes: Any outstanding debts and taxes are settled from the estate.
  • Distributes the remaining property: Finally, the assets are distributed according to the will.

Probate can be time-consuming and costly, often taking months or even years to complete. The process also involves court fees and attorney costs, which can eat into the estate’s value.

Public Record

Another downside is that wills become part of the public record once they enter probate. This means anyone can access the details of your estate, which might not be ideal if you value privacy. In contrast, trusts generally remain private.

No Tax Benefits

Unlike some trusts, wills do not offer any tax benefits. The assets in a will are subject to estate taxes, which can be substantial depending on the size of your estate. For example, the federal estate tax applies to estates exceeding $12.92 million as of 2023. Some states also have their own estate taxes with varying exemption amounts.

Estate Planning - trusts wills

Understanding these advantages and disadvantages can help you decide if a will is the right choice for your estate planning needs. Next, let’s consider the broader estate planning considerations to help you make an informed decision.

Estate Planning Considerations

When planning your estate, it’s important to weigh several key factors. Let’s dive into the considerations that can help you choose between trusts and wills.

Asset Complexity

The complexity of your assets can greatly influence your decision. If you own multiple properties, businesses, or have a diverse portfolio of investments, a trust might be more suitable. Trusts can manage and distribute complex assets more efficiently. On the other hand, if your assets are straightforward, such as a single home and a few bank accounts, a will may suffice.

Beneficiary Needs

Consider the specific needs of your beneficiaries. For instance, if you have minor children, a will is essential as it allows you to name guardians. However, if you have a beneficiary with special needs or someone who may require financial management, a trust can provide more tailored support. Trusts can ensure that funds are used appropriately and provide ongoing financial management.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy is another important factor. Wills go through probate, a public legal process, meaning the details of your estate become public record. This can expose your financial matters to public scrutiny. In contrast, trusts are private and do not go through probate, keeping your estate details confidential. If privacy is a priority, a trust is the better option.

Estate Size

The size of your estate also plays a role. Larger estates can benefit from trusts as they help avoid probate, saving time and reducing costs. Trusts can also offer tax advantages for sizeable estates. For smaller estates, the simplicity and lower cost of a will might be more appropriate.

Legal Costs

Legal costs are an important consideration. Creating a will is generally less expensive than setting up a trust. A simple will can cost between $0 to $1,000, depending on complexity. Trusts, especially complex ones, can be more costly, ranging from $160 to $600 for simple online trusts, and $3,000 and up for more complex arrangements. Balancing the initial cost with the long-term benefits is crucial.

Understanding these factors can help you make an informed decision about your estate planning needs. Next, we’ll address some frequently asked questions about trusts and wills to further aid your understanding.

Frequently Asked Questions about Trusts and Wills

What is Probate and How Does it Affect My Estate Plan?

Probate is a legal process that happens after someone dies. It involves proving in court that a deceased person’s will is valid, identifying and inventorying their property, having the property appraised, paying debts and taxes, and distributing the remaining property as the will directs.

Key Points:
Costs and Delays: Probate can be costly and time-consuming. Lawyers and court fees are paid from estate property, which would otherwise go to the heirs. This process can take months or even years.
Privacy Concerns: Wills that go through probate become public records. This means anyone can see the details of your estate.
Avoiding Probate: One of the main advantages of a trust is that it can help avoid probate. Assets held in a trust can be distributed without court involvement, saving time and money.

How Can I Decide Between a Trust and a Will for My Estate Plan?

Choosing between a trust and a will depends on your specific needs and circumstances. Here are some factors to consider:

Advantages of a Will:
Simplicity: Wills are generally easier and less expensive to set up.
Guardian Appointment: Wills allow you to name guardians for your minor children and pets.
Final Arrangements: You can specify your final arrangements in a will.

Advantages of a Trust:
Avoid Probate: Trusts can help avoid the costly and lengthy probate process.
Control Over Distribution: Trusts offer greater control over how and when your assets are distributed.
Privacy: Trusts are not public records, so your estate details remain private.

Type of Assets: If you have complex assets like multiple properties or significant financial assets, a trust might be more beneficial.
Beneficiary Needs: If you want to provide for minor children or beneficiaries who need help managing money, a trust offers more control.
Cost: Wills are generally less expensive to create, but trusts might save money in the long run by avoiding probate.

What Are the Tax Implications of Trusts and Wills?

The tax implications of trusts and wills can vary depending on their structure and the laws in your state.

Estate Taxes: Assets distributed through a will may be subject to estate taxes. However, many estates fall below the federal estate tax exemption limit.
Income Taxes: Beneficiaries may owe income taxes on certain assets received through a will, such as retirement accounts.

Tax Benefits: Irrevocable trusts can offer significant tax benefits. Assets placed in an irrevocable trust are generally not included in the grantor’s taxable estate.
Creditor Protection: Irrevocable trusts can protect assets from creditors, which can also have tax advantages.
Income Taxes: The trust itself may be subject to income taxes on any earnings, but this depends on the type of trust and how it’s structured.

Choosing the right estate planning tool involves understanding these tax implications and how they align with your financial goals. Consulting with an estate planning attorney can provide tailored advice based on your unique situation.

These FAQs should help clarify some of the most common questions about trusts and wills. For more personalized advice, consider consulting with an estate planning professional.


Navigating the complexities of estate planning can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. By understanding the key differences between trusts and wills, you can make informed decisions that best suit your needs and ensure your assets are distributed according to your wishes.

At Brillant Law Firm, we specialize in trust and estate litigation, offering you the expertise and guidance needed to create a comprehensive estate plan. Our team is dedicated to providing honest advice and reliable support every step of the way.

Whether you’re considering a will for its simplicity and ease of setting up, or a trust for its ability to avoid probate and provide privacy, our experienced attorneys can help you choose the right strategy. We understand that each situation is unique, and we’re committed to tailoring our services to meet your specific needs.

For personalized advice and to start planning your estate, visit our Estate Planning Services. Let us help you secure peace of mind for your future and your loved ones.

The peace you’ll gain from setting up your future is worth it. Get started today, and worry less tomorrow.

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