Planning the future for your loved ones

Will Options for Couples

While an individual will gives you complete control of your wishes after you die, for committed couples creating two wills can sometimes be an expensive process. There are other forms of wills that you and your partner can consider if each of you want the same thing after your death, i.e. passing your combined estate to your partner and eventually to your children and/or the same beneficiaries when your partner dies or you both die at the same time.

  • These options can be considered for couples that are married or in a civil union, domestic partnership, or other similar formal relationships recognized in their state.
  • The steps to create these wills are the same as those found in “What should be included in a will.”

If you opt for one of these wills and have children, you can use it to name a guardian for minor children.

  • If your designated guardian is not able to manage the child’s finances, you may also choose to name an executor to manage them.
  • Except for a joint will, you are not required to agree and could pick different guardians in your wills.
  • You could also do this with a codicil/addendum that can be altered without updating the entire will.

Although partners usually name the other as executor of their will, you can name another person if you feel your partner would not be the best choice as your executor. Even if you name your partner, you should have an alternate executor in case they become unable to or you both die at the same time.

The Mirror Will

One option for you and your partner is to create “mirror” or reciprocal wills. This could save time and money, since once you have created your will, it is a simple process to create a mirror will for your partner by just substituting their name for yours.
Like everything else, there are many things to consider before making a decision, the most important of which is that your partner is free to change or revoke their will at any time, without your consent or knowledge. For example, they can add or change beneficiaries either before your death without telling you or after your death.

Using a Mirror Will

Mirror wills would only be an option under very specific circumstances.

They are best considered when all of these are true.

  1. It is not possible to create a joint will.
  2. You want to name each other as beneficiaries.
  3. Either you have only shared biological/adopted children or no children to name as beneficiaries.
  4. You and your partner are in complete agreement about the fate of the estate upon passing.

Although a will is not the best place to leave funeral and burial wishes, since the will may not be read until after these happen, each partner can include their own preferences.

When to Avoid a Mirror Will

Given the limited conditions where mirror wills are useful, it is not surprising that they are not appropriate for most couples.

Many types of relationships are possible and mirror wills are not the best options for anything but the simplest relationships.

The bottom line is that you want to avoid a situation where your partner could opt to change their will to reflect their preferences, either before or after your death

If you now have a blended family, many complications could affect the will-making process.

  • Your partner may bring additional beneficiaries to the relationship, including step children and in-laws that could make your partner’s beneficiary priorities different from yours.
  • This may have the result of preventing your chosen beneficiaries from inheriting if your surviving partner updates their will to leave the estate to their biological/adopted children or other family.
  • If you marry later in life, you may want to protect assets that you have already chosen the beneficiary for, whether they are family or another type of relationship.

For these kinds of complex relationships, you should probably create two individual wills that address all the unique circumstances of your lives.

Mutual or Married Will

If you would still like to avoid creating individual wills, but are concerned about the ultimate distribution or your estate, consider mutual will, especially if you are remarried or if you want to protect your children if your surviving spouse remarries.

Although very similar to mirror wills, mutual wills contain additional terms that make it mutually binding, i.e. you must each carry out the others wishes stated in their will.

  • Once a clause is added that limits how your surviving spouse can distribute personal items or other property the will is irrevocable (cannot be changed).In other words, the wishes agreed upon in each of your wills must be carried out once your surviving spouse dies.
  • This end result ensures that any property left to your children in the mutual wills eventually passes to your children, rather than to your surviving spouse’s new spouse or stepchildren
  • As with all wills, there are differences among the states.

 

There are a number of other differences between mutual and mirror wills.

  • The will should contain more detailed instructions on how certain assets are distributed, since the will may not be settled for a long time after you die and you may have to anticipate long-term events.
  • You can add a clause that neither of you can alter their will while both of you are alive without mutual consent and after adequate notice to allow time to prepare and alter your will accordingly.

The Joint Will

Unlike the previous wills, a joint will is a single legal document, usually for married couples, that you both sign. It is rarely used these days and may even be prohibited in some states.

Here are the basic details about joint wills.

The will contains an agreed upon distribution of your jointly owned property, usually to your surviving spouse.

They may also include instructions from each of you about how your separate property is to be distributed.

The will can only be updated or revoked by mutual agreement while you are both alive.

Once you die the will is irrevocabile, since your surviving spouse could only change it with your approval, which you are not around to give.

Once your surviving spouse dies the estate goes automatically to your children, even if your spouse remarried or created a new will. They will not be able to disinherit your mutual children.

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While on the surface, the joint will looks to be an effective way to assure your children get their inheritance, the irrevocable nature of the will can have unintended consequences for both your surviving spouse and children.

Your surviving spouse must adhere to any terms in the will until their own death. For example, they would be unable to:


  • sell the family home and buy something smaller, or move into an assisted living facility
  • sell other assets covered by the will if extra money was needed for them or your children
  • give away assets covered in the will to charity, or stop payments to charities they no longer believe in

Because the terms of the will are inflexible, the beneficiaries can’t use the assets in other ways, even if circumstances arise that would need it. For example, your surviving spouse would not be able to:


  • give an adult child any inheritance early to buy a house or start a business
  • help grandchildren with college expenses or other relatives with medical expenses
  • put an encouragement clause for any child, such as finishing college
  • put provisions on the money that will be inherited by a child who is not financially responsible
  • redirect money from a beneficiary who no longer needs it to one who needs it desperately

If they remarry they would be unable to leave any of the jointly owned property from your will to their new spouse, stepchildren, or in-laws.

General References

Can my husband and I make a joint will? NOLO website. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Hykel Cuddy R. Simple Estate Planning Tool for Couples: The Mirror Will. legalzoom website. Posted:  May 2011. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Joint Wills. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Kagan J. Mutual Will. Investopedia website. Updated: May 29, 2018. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Mirror Wills. Legal Match website. Updated: September 10, 2019. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Mirror wills. RocketLawyer website. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Mutual Wills and Estate Planning. Curran Law Firm website. Posted: February 2018. Accessed: October 22, 2019.

Problems of a Joint Will for Married Couples. AllLaw website. Accessed: October 22, 2019.Wills: An Overview. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 9, 2019.