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Principled Advocacy For Families And Individuals With Disabilities And The Professionals Who Serve Them

Why reciprocal wills are better than a joint will for couples

On Behalf of | May 29, 2023 | Estate Planning

Many happily married couples who have been together for decades and fully anticipate they’ll be together as long as they’re both alive think they should prepare a joint will. Their assets are all shared, and if they have grown children, they want them to inherit what’s left when they’re both gone. If they don’t have children (or they feel they’ve given their kids more than enough already), they may have charities or a shared alma mater to which they’d rather leave everything.

A true joint will signed by both spouses isn’t generally the best way to achieve these goals. Further, it may not even hold up in court. A joint will has some serious limitations that spouses should consider before they commit to this approach.

Because it’s signed by both spouses, it can only be modified by both spouses. That means once one spouse dies, the will becomes irrevocable. Therefore, if anything happens in the ensuing years that requires a modification of the will – like an heir who develops a substance abuse issue, a charity that changes its focus or a remarriage – you’ll be stuck with the will you and your late spouse signed.

What are reciprocal (mirror) wills?

Reciprocal wills are often the recommended option for couples who want a “joint” will. Reciprocal wills are often known as “mirror” wills because each spouse’s will mirrors the other’s. Typically, they both designate each other as their sole beneficiary if they die first and their children or other heirs or beneficiaries to receive their assets after they’re both deceased.

The main advantage of reciprocal wills is that a surviving spouse can change their will after their spouse dies. Some people outlive their spouses by many years. You never know what the future holds – maybe even another marriage. A reciprocal will grants you the opportunity to deal with those risks in your estate planning.

There are options for how to draft reciprocal wills. For example, you may each want to leave a small inheritance to your children if you’re the first to die. You may decide to set up one or more trusts as well. In seeking experienced legal guidance, you can determine the best estate planning options to meet the unique needs of your family.