Q&A: Trusts and wills aren’t the same thing. Here’s how they work

Dear Liz: I understand what happens with a living trust when both spouses die at once. But what happens when just one dies? Is the trust tossed out, since the surviving spouse is usually the trustee? What about the stuff that the deceased wanted to go to his or her kids? And what about the wills? When does that get disbursed? Please explain how trusts and wills work, especially for blended families. I’m sure I’m not the only one with questions.

Answer: A complete answer would take many, many more words than this column allows, which is why you should consult a knowledgeable estate planning attorney who can give you personalized advice.

But in a nutshell, wills and living trusts are both documents that allow people to name who they want to get their property. The main difference is that living trusts avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death.

Living trusts are considered revocable, which means the creators can make changes during their lifetimes. At some point, though, the trust usually becomes irrevocable, which means changes no longer can be made.

If a single person makes a living trust, then the trust would become irrevocable when that person dies. With a married couple, part of the trust often becomes irrevocable when the first spouse dies, with the rest becoming irrevocable at the second spouse’s death.

Such a setup allows you to bequeath money and property to your kids if you’re the first to die, rather than hoping your surviving spouse — and potentially your surviving spouse’s future spouse — will do so later.