Sometimes when a couple who has been married for many years embarks on their estate planning, they initially plan to have a joint will. They share their assets and agree that whoever is the first to go will leave everything to the other. Then, when they’re both gone, their children will get everything. If they don’t have children, they may leave everything to their shared alma mater or a charity they both support.
Typically, a joint will isn’t recommended. Once it’s finalized and signed by both spouses, it can only be amended or revoked without the approval of both. Further, once one spouse passes away (or the couple divorces), the will becomes irrevocable. That means if the surviving spouse remarries or family circumstances change in other ways, the will cannot be changed.
How do reciprocal wills work?
An option that’s often recommended when married couples’ estate planning goals are in sync is to create two reciprocal (mirror) wills. These basically serve the same purpose as a joint will. Each spouse names the other as their primary beneficiary and their children or other beneficiaries as contingent beneficiaries, so the two documents mirror one another.
This is a common option that serves the same purpose as a joint will for couples whose assets are shared when each intends to leave their share of the estate to their spouse if they predecease them and want any remaining assets after the second spouse dies to go to their children, other family or perhaps non-profit groups.
What if each spouse wants to leave an inheritance to someone else when they die?
Often, each spouse would like their children or another beneficiary to receive some of their assets (maybe an inheritance they’ve received themselves) when they die rather than wait. You can still create reciprocal wills and use other means to leave those assets.
For example, if you have IRAs or investment accounts in your name, you can list your children or others as beneficiaries on them. This doesn’t need to be reflected in a will. You can also give some of your assets, including property like jewelry, to your children while you’re still alive. A life insurance policy with your child as the beneficiary is another way to accomplish this.
Every couple’s needs and goals are unique. With sound legal guidance, you can make the best decisions for yourselves and those you love.