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Why reciprocal wills are preferable to joint wills

On Behalf of | Jun 20, 2023 | Estate Planning

Many married couples want to simplify their estate planning as much as possible. If they don’t have complex assets or need to set up specialized trusts, they may just want a will that protects whichever spouse lives longer and then, after both are gone, leaves their assets to their adult children.

They may think a joint will is the best way to do that. That can be problematic for a host of reasons.

What’s wrong with a true joint will?

Because it’s written and signed by both spouses, it can’t be modified or revoked unless both spouses agree. That means if one spouse develops cognitive issues that leave them unable to make informed decisions, the other spouse can’t make any changes. 

The same is true once one spouse dies because the will would be considered irrevocable. The surviving spouse could long outlive their husband or wife and possibly remarry. However, they would still be held to that will.

What is a “mirror” will?

A common alternative to a joint will is having reciprocal or mirror wills.  These are essentially identical wills. Typically, they each designate their spouse to inherit all their assets if they predecease them. They can also designate where they want remaining assets to go after they’re both deceased.

The primary advantage of getting reciprocal wills is that a spouse can make any needed changes to their will after the other dies or becomes incapacitated. Either spouse can also change their will at any time without the other’s consent – although they’d no longer have reciprocal wills.

What if you want other beneficiaries to inherit assets after one spouse dies?

Can a reciprocal will work if one spouse has individual assets (say savings bonds or jewelry) they want their children or other beneficiaries to have rather than their spouse after they die? There are ways to leave people assets besides including them in your will. 

You can name them as beneficiaries directly on retirement and investment accounts, for example. You can include them on bank accounts so that they inherit them upon your death. You may choose to give them things, like jewelry or collectibles, while you’re still alive. 

How you and your spouse decide to handle your estate planning is up to you. With experienced legal guidance, you can do what’s best for your individual family.