A Short Comparison of Wills and Revocable Trusts

I explain the differences between will-based plans and revocable trust-based plans to just about every day. This summary will not go into great detail, but will cover the basics.  

Things that Revocable Trusts Can Do that Wills Cannot

  • Avoid guardianship. A revocable trust allows you to designate when, who and how someone takes over if you become incapacitated and unable to manage your own affairs. Wills only become effective when you die, so they are useless in avoiding guardianship proceedings during your life. If you have a will-based plan, you will have to rely on a financial power of attorney for incapacity planning. Because powers of attorney do not take away your ability to make financial decisions upon your incapacity, an incompetency proceeding could still be necessary.   
  • Bypass probate. Property held in a revocable trust does not pass through probate. Your trust doesn’t die with you. A new trustee takes over. The probate process is essentially a way to transfer title. A will has no effect until it is probated. Therefore, property that passes using a will must go through probate.  Probate is a public process and can be costly and time consuming. In most cases, it is preferable to avoid probate.  
  • Maintain privacy after your death. Wills are public documents; trusts are not. Anyone, including your inquisitive neighbor, can discover the details of your estate if you have a will. Trusts allow you to maintain your family’s privacy after death. 
  • Help protect you from court challenges. Although court challenges to wills and trusts occur, a person who is disinherited by a trust will have a harder time contesting the trust because they won’t have a right to get a copy of the trust document. Under North Carolina’s trust code, a trustee’s duty to give information about the trust is to the beneficiaries only.
  • Help you organize Your assets. You don’t have to have a trust to organize your assets. But if you fund the trust, you have to organize. You will review all of your beneficiary designations and title to all of your assets. You may end up consolidating assets. We often refer to trusts as buckets. When you fund your trust, you will inventory your assets and put them in the bucket. This takes some of the burden off of your Successor Trustee or Executor.

Things that Wills Can Do that Revocable Trusts Cannot 

  • Name guardians for children. A revocable trust cannot be used to name guardians to care for minor children. Should you choose a revocable trust-based plan, your will can designate your choice of guardian. You can also use a designation of standby guardian to facilitate this transfer upon your death or disability.
  • Ensure that the court supervises the estate administration. This is something that we generally try to avoid. But in some cases, it may be preferable to have the court approve each distribution and supervise your Executor.  
  • Protect your spouse’s assets from the costs of long-term care. Revocable trusts don’t mix well with Medicaid planning. One of the tools that we use to protect the last surviving spouse from having to spend all of his or her assets on a nursing home is a special needs trust. For some unknown reason, this only works for trusts created in wills.  

Things that Both Wills and Trusts Can Do

  • Allow revisions to your document. Both wills and revocable trusts can be revised whenever your intentions or circumstances change so long as you have the legal capacity to execute them. 
  • Name your beneficiaries. Both wills and trusts allow you to name beneficiaries for your assets.  You will controls only assets in your individual name that do not pass automatically at your death. Your trust will only transfer those assets that have been transferred to your revocable trust. 
  • Provide asset protection for beneficiaries. Trusts and wills can be crafted to include protective sub-trusts which allow your beneficiaries access but keep the assets from being seized by their creditors such as divorcing spouses, judgment creditors, and a bankruptcy trustee. The difference is that if the trusts are created in a will, they also become a public record.

We discuss the differences between wills and trusts in detail with our clients. We look at each client’s goals, financial situation and family dynamics to design an estate plan tailored to their needs. If you would like more information about which type plan may be right for you, we would be happy to discuss this with you.