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Elderly couple sign a joint will

A joint will is a will two people, typically spouses, create to handle the distribution of their assets once they pass away. Joint wills can simplify the will-making process to a degree, but they can sometimes result in mistakes or cause problems for the surviving spouse or will maker. It’s also worth noting that not every state allows for joint wills. Before creating a will with someone else, it’s important to understand how the process works and the pros and cons involved.

Joint Will, Definition

A will is a legal document you can use to specify how you want your assets distributed once you pass away. A joint will merges the wishes and the assets of two people into a single document.

So if you’re married, instead of you each writing a will you could draft a joint will that’s signed by both of you. Joint wills are generally designed to be used by married couples but you could technically create a joint will with a parent, sibling, child or anyone else.

How Joint Wills Work

When creating a joint will, you and the person you’re making it with can decide which assets to include. You also decide together what should be done with those assets when you both pass away.

For instance, it’s not uncommon for a joint will to specify that once the first spouse or will maker has died, all of his or her assets should automatically go to the surviving spouse or will maker. Then, once the surviving spouse or will maker passes away, the remaining assets included in the will would go to their children or other named beneficiaries.

Joint wills are like any other will in that they’re subject to the probate process. This happens once both people who are party to the will have died. Probate is a legal proceeding in which the probate court collects the assets of the deceased person’s estate, assesses their value, pays any debts owed by the estate, then distributes remaining assets to the will’s beneficiaries.

Advantages of Creating a Joint Will

Last will and testamentOne of the main benefits of creating a joint will is that it essentially creates some finality when it comes to what happens to your assets after you pass away. A joint will can’t be changed or revoked without the consent of both will makers. So if you decide that you don’t want to leave your grandmother’s silver collection to your oldest child after all, your spouse would also have to agree to the change.

Joint wills can also offer some reassurance that a surviving spouse will be able to retain property and assets accumulated during the marriage. A joint will agreement can also ensure that your children inherit your estate according to your wishes. If the terms of the will specifically state that children will inherit remaining assets once both will makers are deceased, that couldn’t be changed, even if one spouse were to remarry at some point.

Potential Problems With Joint Wills

While joint wills could work well for some couples, they can sometimes create issues. For instance, while a joint will is revocable as long as both spouses or will makers are alive, it becomes irrevocable once one of them passes away. That could restrict how they’re able to manage assets when it comes to things like changing how children will inherit or selling the marital home.

You could also run into problems if you name someone other than an individual as a beneficiary to your shared will. For example, if you planned to leave some of your assets to a charity and that charity shuts down, that could cause your loved ones to hit a snag in the probate process once it’s time to distribute your estate.

How to Create a Joint Will

Creating a will with your spouse is similar to creating any other type of will. If you have a very simple estate, you may be able to do it yourself using an online will making software program or website. On the other hand, you may want to talk to an estate planning attorney if you have a more complicated estate.

When creating a will, joint or otherwise, you’d want to specify which assets are to be included and how they’re to be distributed. You’d then follow your state’s will-making guidelines for having the will witnessed and notarized if necessary to ensure that it’s legal. Before getting started with the joint-will-making process, it’s important to check your state’s will laws first, since not every state allows them.

Is a Joint Will Right for You?

Muslim coupleSetting up a will jointly with your spouse could make sense if you’re in agreement about what you want to do with your assets. It could also work if you don’t have a lot of assets to dispose of and only a few beneficiaries. But for some people, it might make sense to set up individual wills or create a living trust instead. With individual wills, spouses can name one another as the primary beneficiary, with children named as contingent beneficiaries. This can still ensure that spouses and children inherit but it doesn’t lock either of you in to the will’s terms in case you need to make changes.

A trust allows you to transfer assets to the control of a trustee, who manages them on behalf of the trust’s beneficiaries. A trust could be a better option than a shared will if you have substantial assets or you want to put specific restrictions on when and how beneficiaries can access the assets they’ve inherited. Talking to an estate planning attorney can help you sort out which option is most appropriate.

The Bottom Line

Joint wills can make estate planning easier in some ways but they could add wrinkles to your plan if you need to change the terms. Having one could work for you if you don’t expect any major life changes. But your estate planning goals may just as easily be met with two separate wills or a trust.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about the pros and cons of setting up a joint will. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with a professional advisor in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • If you’re interested in creating a trust to manage assets, consider which type of trust will work best. A revocable trust can be changed during your lifetime while an irrevocable trust requires a permanent transfer of assets. Beyond that, you may want to research specialized trusts, such as an A-B trust, which could help you fine tune your estate plan while minimizing taxes.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/fizkes, ©iStock.com/maybefalse, ©iStock.com/LightFieldStudios

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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