If you’re a married couple who’s been together for many years and want a simple estate plan, you may be considering a joint will. You likely want whichever spouse outlives the other to inherit all your assets and then pass them on to your children or favorite charities.
There are actually several variations on a joint will. Let’s take a brief look at those.
A true joint will
This is one document signed by spouses (or whomever is making the will). It’s rarely used any longer, nor is it typically recommended. Some courts may not even honor a joint will.
Another hindrance with a joint will is that once one spouse dies, the other can’t make changes. If they remarry or a family situation arises that warrants a change, they can’t adapt the will to address that. For example, if a child develops a substance abuse problem, you can’t remove them from the will and place assets for them in a controlled trust.
These are two identical wills with a codicil (addendum) that states that the terms of the wills can only be changed with the consent of both spouses. This means that, as with a joint will, once one spouse dies, the other is stuck with the terms of that will.
These are sometimes known as “reciprocal wills.” In each will, the spouse leaves their assets to the surviving spouse and then to whomever they designate after the second spouse has died.
Unlike the other two kinds of wills, the terms of a mutual will can be changed by the surviving spouse. For this reason alone, it’s often the preferred type of “joint” will.
Leaving assets to others before both spouses die
One concern that some spouses have when creating any of these wills is that their adult children or other family members won’t inherit anything until they’re both gone. There are ways around that. However, since Washington is a community property state, it’s crucial to ensure you’re in compliance with the law.
You may both choose to gift assets to a child while you’re still alive. There are other options as well. The best thing you can do is seek legal guidance to help ensure your estate planning wishes for each other and your family will be upheld by the court.