Many long-married couples who want to make their estate planning simple and cost-effective think the best way to do that is to have a joint will. They often picture one document developed and signed by both spouses stating their wishes for their assets – most, if not all of which are jointly owned.
Generally, they want whichever spouse dies first to leave everything to the surviving spouse. When the surviving spouse dies, everything is divided among their children and/or other beneficiaries, which may include non-profit organizations.
In fact, a true joint will signed by both spouses is rarely used and likely won’t be honored by a probate court. Beyond that, a joint will, even if it were recognized, would lock in the surviving spouse to the terms of the will. If the surviving spouse outlives their late husband or wife by a number of years, that could be problematic.
Maybe one of their children develops mental health or substance abuse issues, so their inheritance could prove a danger to them. Perhaps the spouse remarries and wants to leave assets to a stepchild.
Are mutual wills a good alternative?
This is where spouses create two identical wills. A third document (a codicil, which is an addendum) states that any changes in the terms require the approval of both spouses. Thus, you have the same problem as you’d have with a joint will – a surviving spouse can’t make any changes.
Why mirror (reciprocal) wills are often the best choice
Mirror wills are generally considered the more practical alternative if you want something resembling a joint will. The two spouses’ wills are identical and typically leave everything to the surviving spouse. However, you can each designate that your children get a specified amount of money after the first spouse dies. That means they don’t have to wait until both parents pass away to get an inheritance.
There are other alternatives that allow you to leave something to your kids before you’re both gone. Gifting assets while you’re both still around is one option – as long as you’re careful to avoid triggering gift taxes.
Even a comparatively simple estate plan requires experienced legal guidance. This can help ensure that you’re aware of all of your potential options and can better choose the one(s) that are right for your family.