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.

Q&A: Planning philanthropy

Dear Liz: You recently explained to a reader why it was better to make one donation of $1,000 rather than 10 donations of $100. I understand why you gave the response you did and you made some good points, especially about the importance of researching charities before you give. You also mentioned the costs each organization would incur in processing the smaller donations. As a longtime nonprofit executive, I think the social capital enjoyed by those organizations outweighs the costs. It often is helpful to the organization to be able to count that donor among their ranks to demonstrate that they have widespread support, for example, or to include that donor in future efforts to serve the community. My experience is that it’s not always just about the dollars and cents.

Answer: Thanks for adding your perspective. It’s understandable that a charity would prefer a small donation to no donation. The charity still gets some money, even after processing fees, and the opportunity to add another donor to their mailing lists.

Savvy givers, however, want as much of their money to benefit their favorite causes as possible. Giving larger donations to fewer charities is a good way to do that, since that approach minimizes processing costs as well as the volume of appeals for more donations. Also, adequately researching and monitoring 10 different charities is a tall order for most busy people. Winnowing the choices can help ensure we’re rewarding the best-run charities, rather than those that spend the bulk of their donations on fundraising and overhead.