Wills v. Trusts: What’s the Difference?
What is a Will?
Often, the first 10 minutes of an estate planning consultation involve explaining the differences between a Last Will and Testament (or, simply a “Will”) and a trust. Each may have a critical role to play in a client’s estate plan. A Will is a testamentary instrument, which is a lawyerly way of describing a document that does not become effective until an individual’s death. In other words, a Will is merely a stack of paper with words and a few signatures until the individual executing it (called the “testator”) has passed away. Texas law provides stringent requirements for the proper execution of a legal, valid Will. After the testator’s death, his or her Will must be “admitted to probate” by a court of appropriate jurisdiction. This requires someone (usually the executor) going before a judge and proving up all the various requirements of the Will. Only then can a personal representative take control of the deceased testator’s property, wind up his or her affairs, and distribute the estate in accordance with the Will’s provisions.
What is a Trust?
By contrast, a trust describes a relationship between three parties: (i) the settlor, (ii) trustee, and (iii) the beneficiaries. Thus, a trust is an abstract intangible thing, so it is not a document at all. Also, unlike a Will, a trust may become effective during the grantor’s life, or at death, and there is no requirement that a trust be proved up, authorized, or otherwise sanctioned by a court. To establish a trust, a settlor simply entrusts property to a trustee, who accepts a legal obligation to manage, administer, and distribute that property for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Each of these parties may be a single individual or a group of people. Even though the trust itself is amorphous, the terms, conditions, standards of distributions and other guidelines for this trust relationship are often memorialized in a written document called a “trust instrument.” A trust instrument may be a stand-alone document, or it may constitute a section in a testator’s Will. Either way, a single trust instrument will often govern many different trusts.
Trusts can take an endless variety of forms and serve myriad purposes. Many trusts are created to achieve special tax, asset protection, or wealth transfer goals. But when clients are weighing their options between a Will and a trust for estate planning purposes, they are generally thinking of a “revocable living trust.” This is commonly structured to have an individual or couple simultaneously serve as the settlor, trustee, and initial beneficiary. Revocable living trusts are similar to Wills in that they dictate what will happen with a person’s property when he or she dies. Thus, they remain a standard tool of estate planning attorneys.
Deciding whether a Will or a (revocable living) trust best matches a given situation will depend on the particular client’s needs, goals, outlook and other circumstances. Often, a Will is all that is needed in Texas to plan a person’s estate. In some circumstances, however, a revocable living trust will better address the situation. Understanding the fundamental distinctions between a Will and a trust is an important starting point to both a client’s decision about the overall structure of his or her estate plan, as well as the client’s ability to maintain that estate planning structure in the years to come.
Spencer Turner is an associate attorney at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP. Since obtaining his license to practice law in 2016, Mr. Turner has focused his legal efforts primarily in the trust and estates arena. He has been featured as a speaker on various aspects of the probate process at several seminars hosted by the National Business Institute. Spencer is a graduate of from Baylor University School of Law.
 See Ch. 251 of the Texas Estates Code.
 Mr. Turner and Christian S. Kelso, Esq., a partner at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP, recently co-authored an article for the State Bar of Texas’ Continuing Legal Education program. The article is entitled The Alchemy of Revocable Trusts: Creating the Perfect Solution for Each Client’s Problem, and may be found among the written materials for the “Handling Your First (or Next) Trust 2021” webcast.