Updated: December 13, 2022
While an individual will gives you complete control of your wishes after you die, 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.
If you opt for one of these wills and have children, you can use it to name a guardian for minor children.
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.
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, vice versa if you are naming each other as beneficiaries and their individual assets in place offor yours. Each of you can name your executor and back-up executor.
Like everything else, there are many things to consider before making a decision, the most important of which is that these are individual wills and either of you are free to change or revoke them at any time, without the other’s consent or knowledge. For example, your spouse can add or change beneficiaries either before your death without your knowledge or consent and/or after your death.
Mirror wills should only be an option under very specific circumstances and are best considered when all of these are true.
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.
Mirror wills are not the best options for anything but the simplest social and financial relationships, so it is not surprising that they are not appropriate for most couples. They would not be a good choice for a blended family or couples with a lot of individual assets.
If you have a blended family, many complications could affect the will-making process.
If you marry later in life, you may want to protect assets that you have already chosen the beneficiary for in a previous will, whether they are family or another type of relationship.
A mirror will cannot avoid a situation where your partner could opt to change their will to reflect their new preferences either before or after your death, even changes in your children’s inheritance.
For complex relationships, you should likely create two individual wills that address all the unique circumstances of your lives.
If you would like to create individual wills but are concerned about the ultimate distribution or your estate, consider a mutual will. They are similar to mirror wills in that you each have your own will, but any terms that you mutually agree on can’t be revoked or changed in your will after your death or without mutual agreement while you are alive. They may be appropriate if you are remarried or if you want to protect your children if your surviving spouse remarries.
Mutual wills contain additional terms that make it mutually binding, i.e. you must each carry out the others wishes stated in their will.
There are a number of other differences between mutual and mirror wills.
Unlike other wills, a joint will is a single legal document for married couples that you both sign. Joint wills are rarely used these days and may be prohibited in some states.
The will contains an agreed upon distribution of your jointly owned property that will not go to your surviving spouse (or joint signer) through other means.
They may include instructions from each of you about how your separate property is to be distributed.
Once either of you die the will cannot be changed or revoked since your surviving spouse would be unable to without you around to give your approval.
Once your surviving spouse dies, the estate goes automatically to your children even if they remarried or created a new will. Neither party will be able to disinherit your mutual children/beneficiaries.
While the joint will appears to be an effective way to assure your children get their inheritance, the unchangeable and irrevocable nature of the will can have unintended consequences for both your surviving spouse and children that could continue however long it is between your death and theirs.
The joint will does not usually go through the probate process until the surviving spouse dies.