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Most people understand that having some sort of an estate plan is a good thing. However, many of us do not take the first steps to get that estate plan in place because we do not understand the differences between a will and trust – and dying without either.

Below, our Modesto estate planning attorneys explain what generally happens if you die:

  • Intestate (without a will or trust)
  • With a will
  • With a revocable living trust (hereinafter trust)

For our examples below, we are assuming you have two children, but no spouse:

1. Intestate

If you die intestate, your accounts and property will go through probate. The world will know what you owned, what you owed, and who got what. Your mortgage company, car loan company and credit card companies will all seek payment on balances you owed at the time of your death.

Keep in mind that your death has been published to alert valid creditors. Because of this, it is not uncommon for predators (fake creditors) to come forth and make demands for payment – even if they are not owed anything.

After that, state law will decide who gets what and when. For example:

  • If your only heirs are your two children and you have not provided any instructions, state law will mandate dividing up proceeds equally.
  • Your older child will get their share immediately if they have attained adulthood (18 or 21 years depending on state law).
  • But, the court will appoint a guardian to manage the money for your minor child until that child becomes an adult.
  • Shockingly, that guardian can charge a lot of money for their services and be a total stranger.
  • If you die without a valid will, the court, not you, will decide who raises your minor child.

The bottom line? Dying intestate allows state law and the court to make all the decisions on your behalf – regardless of what your intent might have been. Publicity is guaranteed.

2. Will

If you die with a valid will, your accounts and property will still go through the probate process. However, after creditors have been paid, the remaining accounts and property will go to whom you have named in your will.

  • So, if you want to leave money to your children and name a guardian for the minor, the court will usually abide by your wishes.
  • The same holds true if you specified that you wanted to give money to a charity, your Aunt Betty, or your neighbor.
  • Keep in mind that predatory creditors are still an issue as your death has been publicized. Even with a will, probate is still a public process.

The bottom line? While a court oversees the process, having a will allows you to tell the court exactly how you want your affairs to be handled. But, a public probate is still guaranteed.

3. Trust

If you have created a trust, you have taken control of your estate plan and your accounts and property. Accounts and property owned by the trust are not subject to the probate process. One of the most important benefits of a trust is that the details and process of transferring accounts and property to the intended individuals is private.

In the trust, you will have named a trusted individual (trustee) to manage your affairs, with specific instructions on how and when your accounts and property should be dispersed.

  • One word of caution – a trust must be properly funded to bypass probate.
  • Funding means that ownership of your accounts and property has been changed from your individual name to the name of your trust.
  • Think of your trust as a bushel basket. You must put the apples into the basket just like you must put your accounts and property into the trust for either to have real value.

You do still need a will (pour-over will) to get any accounts or property inadvertently or intentionally left out of your trust into the name of the trust. You will also still need a will to name guardians for a minor child.

The bottom line? A trust allows you to:

  • Maintain control of your accounts and property through your chosen trustee
  • Avoid probate
  • Leave specific instructions so that your children are taken care of – without receiving a lump sum of money at an age where they are more likely to squander it or have it seized from them

Contact Our Estate Planning Lawyers to Get Help With Your Estate Plan

Do not let the differences between a will and trust controversy slow you down. Call our office today at (209) 522-2211. We will put together an estate plan that works for you and your loved ones whether it be a will, trust or both. We are available for in-person and virtual consultations. You can also contact us online and we will be in touch with you soon.

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