In order to understand what a joint will is, it’s essential to start with what a will is. A will is a legal document that sets out how you would like all of your assets and liabilities treated after you pass. It can also create a trust and name a guardian for minor children. A traditional will involves just one person. However, married couples can also create a joint will in California, which can sometimes simplify estate planning and ensure that the plan that the couple made together still holds true even after one person passes away.
A joint will is created between two people. It requires the consent and authorization from both spouses to be valid. Unlike an individual will, a joint will cannot be changed after one person passes away.
In most circumstances, a joint will use the following pattern:
A joint will cannot be changed after the death of one spouse. It creates a binding contract between the spouses that cannot change, even if the surviving spouse remarries or has other children.
A joint will can be a great idea if both spouses are entirely on the same page about how they want their assets distributed, even if one spouse passes away long before the other. In most cases, this type of will is used to ensure that the couple’s assets properly pass along to their heirs.
The primary benefit is that it is cost-effective and can be simple. Instead of having to create two wills, the couple can streamline the process with just one will. Depending on the circumstances, it also forces the couple to “lock into” a long-term estate plan, which can be both a benefit and a drawback. You may need to speak with a California estate planning attorney to determine if this type of benefit makes sense for you.
A joint will becomes irrevocable once the first spouse passes away. That means that if circumstances change for the surviving spouse, they cannot change distributions or even get access to some assets. For instance, depending on how a joint will is written, the surviving spouse might not be able to sell certain assets, which can affect their ability to pay for healthcare or qualify for government benefits.
It also prevents the surviving spouse from changing their heirs. If one child has a falling out with the surviving parent, that parent cannot change the joint will. Likewise, if the surviving spouse remarries and wants to add stepchildren or new children to the will, they cannot do that.
A joint will has several benefits, but it may not be the right estate planning tool for everyone. Instead, couples might want to consider other options that provide the same benefits with a bit more flexibility. Estate planning lawyer Charles D. Stark may be able to use his over 45 years of experience to help you determine whether a joint will is the right option for your situation. Contact our office to learn more or to schedule an appointment: 707-527-9900.