Estate Planning: Is a Will or Trust Better?

10 minutes

Imagine that you’ve worked hard your entire life, accumulating assets, building a legacy, and nurturing your loved ones.  Now, picture a scenario where you’re no longer around to protect and guide them. Who ensures your assets are distributed as intended? This is where estate planning becomes important.

In estate planning, wills and trusts take centre stage as the primary tools to safeguard your legacy. But which one is the right choice for you?

In this blog post, we talk about wills versus trusts, exploring their unique features, advantages, and disadvantages. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to make an informed decision, ensuring your estate is managed exactly as you envision.

Why is estate planning important?

An estate refers to everything you own or owe when you pass away. Estate planning empowers you to have control over the distribution of your assets, protect your loved ones, and provide clarity during difficult times. It is a responsible and proactive step that helps safeguard your legacy and ensures that your wishes are respected while offering invaluable peace of mind.

Other importance of estate planning includes:

Protecting your loved ones

Estate planning allows you to establish a clear roadmap for the distribution of your assets after your passing. Creating a will or trust ensures that your loved ones are taken care of and your assets are distributed according to your wishes. This provides financial security and peace of mind for your family.

Avoiding family disputes and conflicts

Estate Planning - Family disputing

Without a proper estate plan, disagreements among family members can arise regarding the distribution of assets. This can lead to lengthy and costly legal battles, creating rifts that may never fully heal. Estate planning allows you to outline your intentions explicitly, minimising the potential for conflicts and ensuring a smoother transition for your loved ones.

Appointing guardianship for minor children

Estate planning enables you to designate guardians for your minor children in the event of your untimely passing. This ensures that they will be cared for by individuals you trust and who share your values. Failing to address guardianship in your estate plan may result in a court making this decision on your behalf, without knowing your preferences.

Minimising estate taxes and expenses

Careful estate planning can help minimise the tax burden on your estate and maximise the amount of wealth passed on to your beneficiaries. You can take advantage of tax exemptions and deductions through strategies like trusts and gifting, ultimately preserving more of your hard-earned assets.

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Ensuring business continuity

If you own a business, estate planning is crucial for its smooth transition and continuity. By including a succession plan in your estate plan, you can designate who will take over the business and ensure its ongoing operations, preventing potential disruption and preserving the value you’ve built.

Planning for incapacity

Estate planning isn’t solely about what happens after your passing; it also involves planning for potential incapacity during your lifetime. Through documents like a power of attorney and a living will, you can appoint someone to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf if you become unable to do so yourself.

What is a will?

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is a legal document that outlines your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and the management of your affairs after your passing. It is one of the fundamental components of estate planning.

A will can do more than just distribute your belongings.

What you can do with a will

With a will, you can:

  • Choose an executor: You can name someone you trust to be in charge of carrying out your wishes in the will. This person is called an executor.
  • Select guardians: If you have children, you can decide who will take care of them and manage their things if something happens to you. This person is called a guardian.
  • Handle debts and taxes: Your will can say how your debts and taxes should be paid after you’re gone.
  • Provide for pets: You can make sure your pets are taken care of by naming someone to look after them and providing money for their care.
  • Be a backup for a living trust: If you have a living trust, a will can be a backup plan in case something was left out of the trust.

Limitations of a will

There are some things you can’t do with a will, for example:

  • Make conditions on gifts: You can’t say that someone will only get something if they meet certain conditions, like finishing college.
  • Give instructions for final arrangements: Funerals, burials, and cremations are not typically mentioned in a will. It’s better to discuss your wishes with your loved ones directly.
  • Leave property for pets: While you can provide for your pets’ care, you can’t leave them property or money directly.
  • Make arrangements for property outside of probate: Some things, like property in a trust or money from a retirement account, will be transferred separately from the probate process. A will doesn’t control these things.

 

What is a Trust?

A trust is a legal entity that allows a person or entity, known as the trustee, to hold and manage assets on behalf of one or more beneficiaries. It is a popular tool in estate planning that offers flexibility, control, and privacy. A trust is established through a legal document called a trust agreement or declaration of trust.

Creating a trust involves setting up the trust agreement, transferring assets into the trust, and designating beneficiaries and a trustee.

What you can do with a Trust

Here are some things you can do with a trust:

  • Manage assets during your lifetime: A living trust allows you to place your assets into the trust and retain control over them while you are alive. You can act as the trustee, managing the assets as you see fit.
  • Avoid probate: Unlike a will, assets held within a trust generally do not go through the probate process. This means that the distribution of assets can occur more quickly and privately, without court involvement.
  • Provide for incapacity: A trust can include provisions for the management of your assets if you become incapacitated and are unable to handle your financial affairs. You can name a successor trustee to take over management in such situations.
  • Preserve privacy: Trusts offer privacy as the details of the trust, including its assets and beneficiaries, generally remain private. This can be particularly valuable if you prefer to keep your financial matters confidential.
  • Control asset distribution: With a trust, you can specify how and when your assets will be distributed to beneficiaries. You can set conditions or provide for staggered distributions, ensuring that your assets are used in the manner you deem appropriate.

Limitations of a Trust

There are limitations to what a trust can do. For example:

  • Funeral and burial instructions: Similar to wills, trust documents are not typically the place to provide specific instructions for funeral arrangements or final arrangements.
  • Non-probate assets: Certain assets, such as those held in retirement accounts or life insurance policies with named beneficiaries, pass outside of the probate process. A trust does not control the distribution of these assets.

What to Consider in estate planning

When engaging in estate planning, there are several key factors to consider. These considerations will help ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes and effectively addresses your unique circumstances.

Here are some important aspects to take into account:

Your estate planning goals and objectives

Start by identifying your estate planning goals. What do you want to achieve with your estate plan? Common objectives include providing for loved ones, minimising taxes, preserving wealth, supporting charitable causes, or ensuring business continuity. Clarifying your goals will guide your decision-making throughout the estate planning process.

Family dynamics

Understand the dynamics within your family. Consider the needs, abilities, and financial responsibilities of your loved ones. Assess potential conflicts or challenges that may arise and consider how your estate plan can address and mitigate those issues. You may need to make provisions for minor children, disabled family members, or blended families.

Asset inventory and valuation

Take stock of your assets and determine their value. This includes real estate, investments, bank accounts, retirement accounts, business interests, personal belongings, and any other significant assets. Knowing the value and nature of your assets will help you make informed decisions regarding their distribution and management.

Beneficiary designations

Review and update beneficiary designations on financial accounts, retirement plans, life insurance policies, and other similar instruments. Ensure they align with your current wishes and are coordinated with your overall estate plan. Keep in mind that beneficiary designations typically override instructions in a will or trust, so consistency is crucial.

Tax implications of your estate planning choices

Consider the potential tax consequences of your estate plan. Consult with tax professionals to understand the estate tax laws and regulations that apply to your jurisdiction. Explore strategies to minimise estate taxes, such as gifting, charitable giving, or establishing trusts. An estate planning attorney can help you navigate these complexities.

Healthcare and incapacity planning

Estate planning is not just about wealth transfer; it also involves planning for potential incapacity. Create advance healthcare directives, such as a healthcare power of attorney and a living will, to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf and outline your preferences for end-of-life care.

Professional guidance

Seek advice from professionals with expertise in estate planning, such as estate planning attorneys, financial advisors, and tax specialists. They can provide valuable insights, ensure legal compliance, and help you design an estate plan that aligns with your goals.

Remember, estate planning is not a one-time event. It’s important to regularly review and update your estate plan as circumstances change, such as major life events, changes in financial status, or modifications in tax laws.

 

Wills vs Trusts: which is better?

Estate Planning _ Preparing_ Documents

Wills and trusts are both important estate planning tools, but they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics. Understanding their key differences can help you determine which option is best suited for your specific needs.

Let’s compare wills and trusts in several key areas:

Probate Process

One significant difference between wills and trusts is how they are administered after your passing. A will typically goes through the probate process, which is a legal procedure that validates the will, settles debts and taxes, and distributes assets according to the instructions in the will. Probate can be a time-consuming and potentially expensive process, and it is generally a matter of public record.

In contrast, trusts can avoid probate. Assets held within a trust are typically distributed to beneficiaries according to the terms outlined in the trust agreement, bypassing the probate process. This can lead to a quicker distribution of assets and greater privacy, as trust documents generally remain private.

Flexibility and control

A Will offer a high degree of flexibility in determining how your assets will be distributed. You can specify beneficiaries, designate personal representatives or executors, and make provisions for guardianship of minor children. Wills can be revised or updated as circumstances change, providing flexibility in adapting to new situations.

Trusts, on the other hand, offer greater control over how your assets are managed and distributed. You can establish specific instructions for how the assets should be used and when they should be distributed to beneficiaries. Trusts allow for more complex asset management strategies, such as providing for long-term care needs or protecting assets for future generations. Trusts also enable you to exert control beyond your lifetime, as they can continue to operate even after your passing.

Privacy

As mentioned earlier, wills are generally subject to the probate process, which is a public proceeding. This means that the details of your assets, beneficiaries, and debts become part of the public record. Anyone can access this information.
Trusts, however, offer greater privacy. Since trust documents are typically not filed with the court, the details of the trust, including its assets and beneficiaries, can remain confidential. This can be particularly important if you value privacy or if you have concerns about the potential for disputes among family members or unwanted attention from the public.

Cost considerations

The cost of creating and administering a will is generally lower compared to setting up and managing a trust.

However, it is important to consider the potential costs associated with probate, such as court fees and legal expenses, which can vary depending on the complexity of the estate and any disputes that may arise.

While trusts may involve higher upfront costs, they can potentially save money in the long run by avoiding or minimising probate fees, particularly for larger estates or those with complex asset portfolios.

Choosing between a will and a trust ultimately depends on your specific circumstances, goals, and preferences.

Additionally, keep in mind that wills and trusts can also work together in an integrated estate plan, complementing each other’s strengths and addressing different aspects of your estate planning needs.

How to integrate a will and a trust

If you want to enjoy the benefits of both wills and trusts, you can include both in your estate planning. Here are simple ways to do it:

  • Pour-over will: This type of will acts as a backup to a living trust. It ensures that any assets not transferred to the trust during your lifetime are “poured over” into the trust after your death. For instance, if you refinanced your home and forgot to put it back into the trust, a pour-over will take care of transferring the house to the trust.
  • Testamentary trust: This trust is created through the terms of your will after you pass away. For example, your will can state that a trust should be established to take care of your minor children until they reach the age of 25.

Incorporating both a pour-over will and a testamentary trust, covers various aspects of your estate planning and ensures that your assets are managed and distributed according to your wishes.

 

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