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One of the first questions clients often ask me is, what is the difference between a will and a trust, and why should I want one or the other?  There are five key things a will can’t do – avoid the expense of probate, immediately transfer your assets to your heirs, protect you and your heir's privacy, avoid estate taxes, and provide incapacity protection.  But a complete estate plan with a living trust can handle all of these things.

A Will Does Not Shield Your Heirs from the Expense of Probate

This often comes as a surprise to many people, but it’s true – wills do not avoid probate.  If the gross value of your estate is over $150,000 in California, your heirs will have to go through the entire slow, expensive and public process of probate even if you have a will.  And probate is expensive.  Even a modest estate of $200,000 would incur $14,000 in attorney and executor fees.

A Will Won’t Immediately Transfer Your Assets to Your Heirs

While it is theoretically possible to conclude a probate matter in about 6 months, most estates take even longer.  What this means is that your beneficiaries may need the money from the estate but they won’t have access to their inheritance until after the court is satisfied that all creditors have been notified, and the estate is in a position to be closed, and the assets distributed.   A trust puts the successor trustee immediately in charge.

A Will Won’t Protect You or Your Heirs’ Privacy

Probate is a public court proceeding.  One of the required documents for a probate case is a complete inventory detailing all of the assets, and all of the expenses and all of the income during the time of the probate case.  The order for distributing all of the assets details exactly who gets what.  In today’s world of identity theft, this information is a treasure trove from a scammers perspective.

A Will Can’t Protect Your Estate from Estate Taxes

Estate tax planning for high net worth individuals involves a number of different legal strategies, but none of them involve creating a simple will.  The reason is that a will deals with what is in your estate, and in order to deal with estate taxes, we look at ways to move assets out of your estate.

A Will Provides No Incapacity or Disability Protection

A will only takes effect at a person’s death.  But if you are unable to make medical or financial decisions, who will be able to make those decisions on your behalf?  An executor under a will won’t be able to help you.

The One thing Only a Will Can Do

In California, the one thing a will can do, but a trust can’t, is nominate a guardian for your minor children.  That is one reason why all of our estate plans that include a living trust also include a will.  A will is always included as a backup document to a living trust.