If you and your spouse have been married for decades and fully intend to remain together for the rest of your lives, you may think the easiest way to handle your estate plan is with a joint will. A true joint will for a married couple is one document signed by both spouses.
The will can only be modified or revoked only if both spouses agree. After the first spouse dies, the will becomes irrevocable. The surviving spouse cannot make any changes to it – even if they were to remarry or other circumstances changed since the co-signer is no longer around to approve that change.
Joint wills are typically not recognized in Virginia. That means if you relocate here from another state with a joint will, you’ll probably need to convert it into separate wills.
Reciprocal (mirror) wills
This is a common option that serves the same purpose as a joint will for couples whose assets are shared when each intends to leave their share of the estate to their spouse if they predecease them and want any remaining assets after the second spouse dies to go to their children, other family or perhaps non-profit groups.
A reciprocal will involves each spouse making their own will that is essentially a mirror image of the other. They list their husband or wife as their primary beneficiary to receive their share of the assets if they die first. Their contingent beneficiaries are their children or other heirs or beneficiaries. Those beneficiaries don’t receive anything until the second spouse dies.
What if you choose to have reciprocal wills, but each of you wants your children to receive some of your assets when you pass away without having to wait until their other parent dies? There are ways to do that. You can designate them as beneficiaries for a percentage of your investment or retirement accounts, for example. The surviving spouse can always gift assets to children and grandchildren as they choose. It’s just important to keep in mind tax considerations.
The best course of action for long-term couples if you want to keep things as uncomplicated as possible but still have a solid estate plan is to get experienced legal guidance. This will help you do what is best for your family within the laws of Virginia.