Will vs. Trust: What Do You Need? Cost, Process and Uses

You likely need a will if you have a spouse, kids or property. Trusts can give you more control over your estate.
Dalia Ramirez
Tiffany Lam-Balfour
By Tiffany Lam-Balfour and  Dalia Ramirez 
Updated
Edited by Tina Orem

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Wills and trusts are legal instruments that ensure your assets pass to heirs according to your wishes. The main difference between wills and trusts is that wills take effect after you die, while trusts can take care of your assets while you’re still alive.

Also, trusts can help an estate avoid probate, the court process for distributing your property; wills, on the other hand, typically must go through probate. Generally, you may need a will if you're married, have kids or own property. Setting up trusts is an extra step that can make sense if you have a large or complicated estate, or if you need more control over how assets are distributed.

🤓Nerdy Tip

The beneficiary information you put on certain financial accounts usually takes priority over the beneficiary information you put in your will or trust. As part of the account setup process, financial institutions that hold retirement accounts and life insurance policies often require you to designate a beneficiary for the account, and that designation typically overrides designations you make in other estate planning tools.

What is a will?

A will is a set of instructions for what to do with a person’s assets after they die. The creator of a will, called the testator, elects an executor to handle the estate’s affairs upon their death. These affairs include implementing the will's instructions for things such as guardianship of minor children and pets, distribution of property and assets, charitable donations and funeral arrangements.

Wills typically do not apply to assets that are owned jointly — those usually transfer to the surviving co-owner when one owner dies. State laws for wills vary, but most require that the testator and two witnesses sign the will before it becomes legally binding and effective.

LegalZoom - Last Will

Trust & Will - Will

Price (one-time)

$89 for Basic will plan, $99 for Comprehensive will plan, $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

Price (one-time)

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples.

Price (annual)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Access to attorney support

Yes

Access to attorney support

Yes

What is a trust?

Trusts are separate legal entities you can set up to ensure that your assets go to the right beneficiaries in the way you choose. They can give you more control over the distribution of your estate, and some types of trusts may even reduce your estate taxes if you have a large estate. Trusts can also help your estate avoid the probate process, which is public record and can take several months.

Unlike wills, trusts need to be funded, which means that you must transfer your assets — property, accounts (investments, retirement, banking), etc. — to the trust by retitling them in the name of the trust.

To set up a trust, the creator (called the grantor) opens a trust account, puts assets in the name of the trust and authorizes another person, called a trustee, to distribute those assets to the trust’s beneficiaries according to the rules in the trust agreement.

» Planning your estate? Here’s how to get started

Deciding factors

Will

Trust

Cost

Around $0 to $1,000, depending on the complexity and size of the estate and how it is created (DIY, online, via an attorney).

$160 to $600 for a simple online trust; around $3,000 and up for complex trusts.

Especially good for

People with minor children or dependents, and those who have specific wishes for end-of-life care.

Those who want their beneficiaries to receive assets while they’re still alive, potentially reduce estate taxes or avoid probate after their death.

Process

Straightforward process.

More complex process, with more paperwork.

Effect

  • Effective after one's death.

  • Usually comes secondary to trusts.

  • Provides guardianship for minor children.

  • Effective once signed and funded.

  • Generally takes precedence over wills.

  • Does not provide guardianship.

Taxes

Wills do not avoid estate taxes. The federal estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $12.92 million in 2023 or $13.61 million in 2024.

Irrevocable trusts can provide tax benefits and protect your estate from creditors. Revocable trusts generally do not provide these things.

Privacy

Wills may be subject to probate, which is a public legal process. People may contest your will.

Trusts bypass probate and are less likely to be successfully challenged, which gives your finances and beneficiaries privacy.

Protection during incapacity

Wills take effect after your death, so they do not protect your assets if you become incapacitated.

Trusts can protect your assets if you are incapacitated while still alive.

How to decide if you need a will, a trust or both

1. Do I need a will?

In general, you need a will in order to specify guardians for minor children in the event of your death.

In some states, estates under a certain value don’t need to go through probate. Thresholds vary by state. The probate process can be longer and more complicated if you don’t have a will. You likely need a will if your estate is over the threshold in your state.

You may not need a will at this time. A will is helpful to tell your loved ones where you want your personal belongings to go, but it may not be necessary for legal purposes if you don’t own real estate or any assets above the threshold that requires the involvement of the probate court in your state.

Even if you have a trust, you may still need a will if you want to leave instructions for assets that didn’t make it into the trust. One strategy: A pour-over will works as a contingency alongside a living trust. It directs everything in your estate over to the living trust when you die. People use pour-over wills as a backstop in case some of their assets didn’t make it into the trust before they died.

For example, if you removed your home from the trust during a refinance and never retitled back into the trust, a pour-over will can transfer the home back into the trust if you happen to die when the house is still outside the trust.

2. Do I need a trust?

The federal estate tax doesn't apply to most estates, but you may consider an irrevocable trust if your estate is big enough to trigger federal or state estate taxes. The federal estate tax ranges from rates of 18% to 40% and generally only applies to assets over $12.92 million in 2023 or $13.61 million in 2024. Some state estate taxes start as low as $1 million.

An irrevocable trust permanently removes assets from your estate and gives them to the trust. This irreversible transfer of ownership thus takes the assets out of your possession in the eyes of the IRS, leaving you with a smaller estate (and, therefore, possibly less estate tax). You may have to pay gift taxes on your transfers to the trust. Keep in mind that irrevocable trusts are permanent once they’re signed and funded, so the assets in the trust, and the beneficiaries you name, cannot be changed.

You may benefit from a revocable living trust. This type of trust allows you to change the beneficiaries and assets as long as you’re alive and physically and mentally able to do so. If you become unable to manage the trust, the trustee you chose can take over for you.

Revocable living trusts ensure that your assets are managed according to your wishes if you fall ill, lose mental capacity or even are out of the country for an extended time.

You may benefit from creating a special needs trust. This kind of trust can financially support a child with a disability or functional needs without disqualifying them from needs-based government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

You may want an irrevocable trust. Creditors are able to make claims on estates even if there is a will or living trust in place, though it is often harder to make a claim against assets in a living trust. Only an irrevocable trust can guard assets from creditor claims. The grantor of a living trust is still considered the owner of the assets.

You might want to set up a spendthrift trust or an educational trust. If you’re concerned about how (or how quickly) your heir will spend their inheritance, a spendthrift trust can include specific language that restricts the timing of access to your assets and sets rules for how to spend the assets. It can also help protect assets from creditors if your beneficiary has debt.

You might benefit from a trust. Assets held in trust aren’t subject to probate court like wills are. They’re also more likely to be set up with the help of an estate attorney, which can give them more legal validity.

Trusts are also effective once signed and funded, and if they’re revocable, can be updated throughout your lifetime. This means that they’re less likely to be successfully challenged than a will, because it’s harder to argue that a trust is outdated, made at a time when the grantor was not of sound mind or made under the influence of someone else.

You may benefit from a testamentary trust. This is a trust created by the terms of your will after your death. For example, a will may stipulate that a trust be created to help care for minor children until they turn 25 years old. You can include multiple testamentary trusts in your will, including for charitable donations.

You may benefit from a charitable lead trust or a charitable remainder trust. Charitable lead trusts support a charitable organization for a set period of time, and then it passes the rest to the grantor’s beneficiaries.

Charitable remainder trusts are the opposite: they pay an income to the donor or beneficiaries for a set period of time, and then give the remainder to a charity. Some charitable trusts can qualify for tax-exempt status if they meet certain requirements.

You may want to set up a qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust. The assets in this type of testamentary trust support a surviving spouse with consistent income, then go to your chosen beneficiaries (usually children) when the surviving spouse dies.

» Learn more: How a QTIP trust works

LegalZoom - Last Will

Trust & Will - Will

Price (one-time)

$89 for Basic will plan, $99 for Comprehensive will plan, $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.

Price (one-time)

Will: one-time fee of $199 per individual or $299 for couples. Trust: one-time fee of $499 per individual or $599 for couples.

Price (annual)

None

Price (annual)

$19 annual membership fee.

Access to attorney support

Yes

Access to attorney support

Yes

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