Trusts and wills aren’t the same thing. Here’s how they work

A gavel rests on a power of attorney document.
Wills and trusts help you pass your property on after you die. It’s complex, so it’s a good idea to consult a knowledgeable estate-planning attorney who can give you personalized advice.
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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.

A Southern California man opened a Chase account for his young daughter. He discovered that someone was withdrawing funds. Not our problem, Chase said.

Social Security is insurance

Dear Liz: My wife died in March 2020. I receive nothing from her Social Security (other than $255) and will receive only a portion of mine due to the windfall elimination provision. Is there anything I can do since I am receiving none of what she paid into Social Security and only a fraction of mine?

Answer: In a word, no. If you’re receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into Social Security, the government pension offset reduces any Social Security survivor or spousal benefit by two-thirds of the amount of your pension. If two-thirds of the amount of your pension is greater than your survivor benefit, you don’t get a survivor benefit.

Is that an outrage? Perhaps, if you think that Social Security should act like a retirement account. In reality, it’s insurance. (The formal name for Social Security is Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance.)

With a retirement account, what you take out usually bears some relationship to what you put in. With insurance, that’s not necessarily the case. You may take out more than you put in, less or nothing at all.

Many people pay Social Security taxes for decades but ultimately get more from a spousal or survivor benefit than from their own work record. Then there are those, like you, who have their retirement benefit reduced, or a survivor benefit eliminated, because they have a generous pension from a government job that didn’t pay into the Social Security system. In these cases, it can feel like the Social Security taxes paid — the “premiums,” if you will — have been wasted even if financially you’ve come out ahead.

These retirement researchers suggest maximizing Social Security and basing account withdrawals on the IRS’ required minimum distribution percentages.

Plan for taxes after mortgage payoff

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you answered a question from a couple who just paid off their mortgage. You suggested increasing retirement or emergency savings or possibly charitable contributions. All good, but you should have pointed out that the mortgage lender will not be responsible for paying the property tax and fire insurance going forward. I would suggest the couple open a separate account and build up a fund to pay those expenses or they could be facing financial hardship when the tax and insurance bills come.

Answer: Good point. Many homeowners are accustomed to paying their homeowners insurance and property taxes through escrow accounts set up by their mortgage lenders. Once the loan is paid off, these bills become the homeowners’ responsibility to pay.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at