Often, married couples who have been together for many years, particularly in community property states like California, consider putting a joint will in place. They may (and should) still have other estate planning documents like an advance directive for health care. However, they believe that there’s no need for them to have two separate wills.
Usually the goal of couples considering a joint will is to stipulate that whichever spouse outlives the other will inherit everything. Then, when the surviving spouse dies, everything will go to their children and other beneficiaries as they designate.
The problem with joint and mutual wills
A true joint will, which is one document signed by both spouses, can be problematic. The main issue is that once one of the spouses dies (or perhaps becomes incapacitated and unable to make decisions), the other spouse can’t make any changes to it.
The same issues apply to mutual wills. These are basically two identical wills with a codicil (addendum) stating that neither can be changed without the consent of the other spouse.
In both cases, that means if one of your adult children becomes estranged from the family or develops a serious addiction after your spouse has passed away, you can’t adjust the inheritance they’ll receive. That’s just one example of how things can change in ways you could never envision while writing the will.
There’s also a greater chance that the will might not be accepted by a probate court or could be challenged after the second spouse dies – particularly if circumstances did change significantly after the first one died.
What are mirror wills?
Mirror wills (also called “reciprocal wills”) can be just as easy to put in place. They are also identical wills. However, they don’t require the approval of both spouses to change. That means the surviving spouse isn’t stuck with a will that’s not appropriate for their family if things change after their husband or wife dies.
Even a relatively uncomplicated estate plan that involves both spouses wanting the same things requires careful thought and knowledge of all of the potential options for achieving your goals. Having sound legal guidance can make things easier for you and your loved ones.