What are the advantages and drawbacks of a joint will?

When it comes to planning, people tend to put things off. But many people in California and elsewhere may not realize that even setting up the most basic estate planning documents such as a will can provide the foundation for financial security for their loved ones.

Couples who are examining their options sometimes consider creating a joint will rather two separate ones. Not only does this action save time and expense, it creates one jointly owned, transferable estate rather than two. While this may sound ideal for some, there are also caveats to keep in mind. Residents of San Jose may want to consider all the angles as they take steps toward creating their estate plan.

How are a will and a joint will similar, and how are they different?

A will is essentially a legal instrument that preserves the wishes of an individual, called the testator, regarding the distribution of the assets of their estate. It also allows the testator to:

  • Name a personal representative to oversee the probate administration.
  • Provide for the care of minor children.

A joint will combines the wishes and the assets of two people who are often a married couple. A joint will has two testators who create a document that preserves both of their wishes. It goes through probate only on the death of both testators, whereas a single will most likely will go through probate and the surviving spouse becomes a beneficiary.

As California is a community property state, the surviving spouse would ordinarily receive all marital assets, but a joint will ensures that they receive the entire estate.

The pros and cons

If the couple agree on all aspects of the joint will, it keeps things simple. Also, if one dies before the other, the surviving spouse inherits the entire estate and will not have to deal with probate.

But this is where things get complicated. A joint will is revocable only if both spouses are alive. It cannot be changed once one person passes, which means the surviving spouse cannot alter how or which beneficiaries will inherit assets, nor what to do concerning the family home. If the widowed spouse remarries, the terms of the estate cannot be changed to reflect this life change.

While joint wills provide simplicity if both spouses are in agreement and there is no need to change the terms, they can become cumbersome if there is a major life event. Joint wills were once common, but now couples enjoy the flexibility of a living trust or simply create individual wills, which allows them to make changes when necessary.