Joint Will: What Is a Mutual Will?

By Anna Davies · February 01, 2024 · 7 minute read

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Joint Will: What Is a Mutual Will?

When you’re married and are each other’s beneficiaries, it makes sense to create a single joint will, right? Not necessarily. Even if you plan to leave everything to your significant other upon death, creating this kind of legal document may lead to complications down the line.

Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of wills married couples can create so you can decide what’s best for you. Here’s what you need to know so you can have the right legal paperwork in place.

What Is a Joint Will?

A joint will is a single shared legal document, signed by two or more people. It is relatively uncommon today, and many attorneys recommend against them. One of the motivations for a joint will is that, when one person dies, it’s nearly impossible for a surviving spouse to change the terms of the will. This can be problematic because circumstances change over time. What if the person mentioned to inherit property in the will has passed away?

That said, a joint will for a couple can seem desirable precisely because it’s not flexible. This can ensure that a child from a previous marriage, for example, inherits what is outlined in the will even if their parent dies before their new spouse does. But these sort of permanent clauses can be handled in a trust, which can allow for complex, shifting situations.

💡 Quick Tip: A trust is a customized estate planning tool that can be helpful for your heirs in addition to a will.

How Do Joint Wills Work?

A joint will for a married couple is a single document, signed by two partners. When you’re both alive, changes can be made as long as you both agree. But once a partner dies, the will becomes binding.

For this reason, a joint will for a married couple can be binding, restrictive, and not necessarily optimal for the complexity of modern-day life.

Say that the will stipulates that the house the couple owns will be inherited by their three children upon the death of both spouses. But what if the surviving spouse has a financial emergency and wants to sell the house? Or simply wants to downsize to a smaller living space? Because of the will, they could be stuck in a difficult scenario.

Also consider that a joint will doesn’t always cover the ‘what ifs’ that can come up during life. From remarriage to family disputes to having more children, a joint will can lock assets in time, making it tough for the surviving spouse to move on.

How Do Mutual Wills Work?

Fortunately, there are options for those who worry about a joint will being too rigid. A more common option that offers flexibility is what’s known as a mutual will, or mirror will. In this case, two documents are created, one for each spouse. They may be identical, but because they are two documents, separately signed, the surviving spouse can then modify their own individual will when their partner passes away.

But what if you are concerned that you might die first and your surviving spouse could, say, omit a child or other loved one from their inheritance? (Yes, that may sound odd, but life contains many complicated family situations!) In this case, lawyers may recommend a trust as an option to ensure that your own personal wishes are carried out when it comes to your property. The trust can also make sure that your directives are followed when it comes to joint property mutually owned, like real estate.

Recommended: Important Estate Planning Documents to Know

Joint Will vs Individual Will: Pros and Cons

So, what are the pros and cons of joint wills versus individual (separate) wills? In general, the biggest con against a joint will may be the lack of flexibility. But for some people with relatively simple estates, this can seem like a positive.

Pros of a joint will:

•   Simplicity. It’s a one-and-done proposition!

•   Clarity. It ensures that both partner’s wishes, as written, will be respected, even after death.

Cons of a joint will:

•   Rigidity. If a partner gets remarried or has more children, it will be complicated if not impossible to change the original will.

Pros of an individual will:

•   Flexibility. After a partner dies, the surviving partner can change the will to reflect their new reality.

•   Simplicity. You can create one document and each sign it separately. Each individual is then free to amend their own will.

Cons of an individual will:

•   Flexibility. Yes, this is a double-edged sword. These wills aren’t “carved in stone” which can be a good or bad thing. Here’s the latter: With individual wills, the wishes of the partner who dies first may not be fully honored. These concerns may be solved by the creation of a trust.

•   Maintenance-intensive. A surviving partner may want to rewrite their will over time as their life circumstances change.

Do Husbands and Wives Need Individual Wills?

In most cases, yes, it’s beneficial if husbands and wives have separate wills. The wills can be identical — also called a mutual will or mirror will — but having two distinct documents that are individually signed can help protect against what-ifs in the future. Having individual wills can give flexibility to the surviving spouse.

Let’s say that a joint will stipulates that a house owned jointly by a married couple will go to children upon the death of both spouses. That means if one spouse dies, the other spouse may not be able to sell the house that he or she lives in, even in the case of financial hardship. A joint will can lock a surviving spouse in time, despite evolving circumstances.

Instead, a couple may prefer individual wills. These can mirror each other, but the surviving spouse retains flexibility in case their needs or circumstances change after the spouse dies.

Worth noting: For some, the lack of flexibility of a joint will may be seen as positive. For example, some couples may want a joint will to ensure their children receive an inheritance, even if the surviving spouse remarries. However, some legal experts believe this goal can better be achieved through the creation of a trust.

As you think about making your will, it can be helpful to consider the pros and cons of a joint will. Getting an expert opinion can also be a smart move.

What Happens to a Joint Will When Someone Dies?

A joint will is essentially frozen in time when someone dies. The will becomes “irrevocable,” and property must be divided according to the terms of the will. If it says all assets are to be inherited by the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse will inherit assets. But confusion may occur if and when both spouses pass away. A joint will then makes it hard, if not impossible, to reallocate property.

Let’s consider another scenario to see why a joint will can be problematic. Perhaps a joint will specifies that a certain sum of money is to go to a charity upon death. If the charity no longer exists after one spouse passes away, this may lead to complications and a legal headache.

In short: A joint will is similar to a time capsule. While its contents may make sense now, it can be helpful to consider “what ifs” that may happen ten, twenty, or fifty years in the future. This can lead some couples to decide that individual wills will work better.

Recommended: What Happens If You Die Without A Will?

Can You Make a Joint Will Online?

It is possible to make a joint will online. But because not every state recognizes a joint will, it’s important to make sure you live in a state that does before you move forward.

💡 Quick Tip: It’s recommended that you update your will every 3-5 years, and after any major life event. With online estate planning, changes can be made in just a few minutes — no attorney required.

The Takeaway

End-of-life planning is an important way to express your wishes and protect those closest to you. A will is one key component of that, but married couples have an important choice to make when deciding whether to have joint or individual wills. Even if you and your spouse are the ultimate joined-at-the-hip lovebirds, having separate wills may be a good idea. It can often provide more flexibility and family peace in the years ahead.

When you want to make things easier on your loved ones in the future, SoFi can help. We partnered with Trust & Will, the leading online estate planning platform, to give our members 15% off their trust, will, or guardianship. The forms are fast, secure, and easy to use.

Create a complete and customized estate plan in as little as 15 minutes.

Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

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