Estate Planning For Peace Of Mind

Why reciprocal wills are better for couples than joint wills

On Behalf of | Mar 19, 2024 | Estate Planning |

Many couples who put off their estate planning until their senior years do so because they dread the thought of it. Yet, as tough as getting started can be, it’s still important for people to at least put a will in place.

When someone dies without one (which is called dying “intestate”), a court will determine how their assets are disbursed based on state law. Under these circumstances, there’s no chance to leave something to a favorite charity or a relative or friend outside the immediate family. Further, it creates more stress and confusion for surviving loved ones when there are no codified wishes.

The limitations of a joint will

Older couples who have been together for many years sometimes want to have a joint will because they think it will simplify things. They typically want the spouse who lives longer to inherit all of their assets and then for their children to inherit everything after they’re both gone. Yet, a true joint will – one document signed by both spouses – can actually complicate things to an unreasonable degree. As a result, most estate planning professionals strongly discourage them.

One key limitation of a joint will is that both spouses need to agree to any modifications. When one spouse dies, that means the other can’t make any changes, no matter how circumstances in their family or life may change. The same is true if one spouse develops dementia or other condition that leaves them without the “testamentary capacity” to agree to any changes.

How does a reciprocal will work?

A common alternative to a joint will is to have two reciprocal wills – also known as mirror wills. The two wills have the same terms, typically allowing the surviving spouse to inherit everything. However, since they’re two separate documents, each signed by one spouse, the spouse who lives longer is free to make changes if they need to after their spouse dies or becomes incapacitated.

Getting experienced estate planning guidance doesn’t mean that you have to put a complex estate plan in place. The important thing is to have the right documents for you and your family, given your unique circumstances.