A couple on the beach talking about reciprocal wills.

4 minute read

Reciprocal Will: What You Need to Know

When creating wills for you and your spouse, you have many options for the format– one of them is Reciprocal Wills. Here's what you need to know.

Creating your estate plan can offer you your partner peace of mind. Knowing that you’ve set up your estate and your loved ones for the future is a good feeling. Many people, couples especially, find that a solid plan offers them great comfort, since they know they won’t be leaving a mess for their children, friends and families to deal with. 

One smart tool that many married people and couples choose to use is known as a Reciprocal Will. Reciprocal Wills aren’t the perfect solution for everyone, but they might be exactly what you and your partner have been looking for. 

Read on to learn more about what these Reciprocal Wills can offer couples. Find out why some love it, and when it may or may not be a good idea for your specific estate planning needs and goals.

What is a Reciprocal Will?

Reciprocal Wills are individual, separate Wills that two people make to pass property, usually to one another, upon the first spouse’s passing. They function as a reflection of the same interests. They’re typically best used when people have fairly simple estates and they agree on how property should be passed on to the same person once both of them are deceased. 

A Reciprocal Will definition is pretty straightforward. Couples don’t always have to create estate plans that are individual and unique. Instead, they can choose to develop Wills that are practically carbon copies of the other. Also known as a Mirror Will, typically just the names of each spouse are the only difference in this type of Will. 

It’s important to note that a Reciprocating Will doesn’t have any binding on what the surviving spouse does after the fact (unlike what a Mutual Will would require).  

How is property passed in a Reciprocal Will?

As noted, in a Reciprocal Will, both spouses have an identical Will. Once one of the spouses passes, the surviving spouse has 100 percent control of any remaining estate (assuming the Reciprocal Wills didn’t pass assets to other beneficiaries). In this regard, the survivor can essentially do whatever he or she wants after the fact, without constraint by anything the passing spouse might have wanted otherwise. If it wasn’t constrained in the Will, it doesn’t matter.

A common concern about Reciprocal Wills is can they allow for assets to be passed to others. The answer is yes, you can pass assets to beneficiaries when a spouse passes, even if you’re using a Reciprocal Will. The survivor, of course, should have been in agreement with the terms when the Reciprocal Will was originally set-up. 

Using this option, certain assets that both spouses agreed to can go to specific beneficiaries as intended, even if the survivor lives for years after the first spouse passes. Once any assets are addressed and distributed, the remaining estate is under the control of the surviving spouse.

Why choose a Reciprocal Will?

Reciprocal Wills are ideal for partners and couples who are pretty much in sync with each other about how they want their estate distributed, but they don’t want to tie anything up after one spouse’s death. 

Reciprocal Wills differ from other types of Will like Joint Wills. With a Joint Will, there is only one document and it becomes final (unable to be changed) once the first spouse passes away. Because there are two individual documents with Reciprocal Wills, the surviving spouse can change his or her Will even after the death of the first spouse. 

Reciprocal Wills can be especially nice when couples want to see everything evenly distributed and don’t have a lot of differences. It can also be useful when partners want to make sure the surviving spouse has full control of what’s left, aside, of course, from any special wishes explicitly detailed in the Wills. 

Pros of Reciprocal Wills

There are a few other advantages to Reciprocal Wills– let’s take a look at a few.

  • Less cost in crafting legally: Rather than having to pay the cost of preparing two completely separate Wills which, if done correctly, can run anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars in fees, Reciprocal Wills are essentially the same — just the person the Will is named for is going to be different. That can save valuable dollars in fees, especially for folks on a budget.

  • An effective way to avoid probate pitfalls: Without a Will at all, your entire estate goes into the probate process. This means the court decides what happens. That can be messy, expensive, stressful and complicated. While it’s true that your estate still goes through probate with any type of Will, the existence of your Estate Plan tends to make things process far smoother and with less headaches and costs.

  • Smooth partner transition: Reciprocal Wills work almost as effectively as a Trust. They allow the passing of assets to the surviving spouse and reduce the amount of time things are hung up in the probate process during intestate succession. After all, surviving spouses have enough to worry about without also having to argue legally about a shared estate.

Cons of Reciprocal Wills

While there are a number of advantages to the Reciprocal Will, they’re not right for everyone.  For example, in the case when there are specific issues from one spouse to the other, or when there are prior assets from before the couple entered into a community property situation (such as second or subsequent marriages). Children from prior unions and other more complicated situations can create expectations that some assets be treated a certain way as well. Other disadvantages include the following:

  • No agreement possible: The key element of a Reciprocal Will is that both spouses agree and have an identical expectation for the outcome of their estate after one of them passes. If there are differences or they can’t agree, the Reciprocal Will is not appropriate. It needs full agreement by both spouses when executed to work as intended.

  • The current Reciprocal Will can’t change the future: If a spouse passes, the survivor is free to do whatever he or she wants with the remaining estate. They can get remarried and create another Will, including a new Reciprocal Will with their next marriage partner. Doing so would nullify any prior Wills. Children from the earlier marriage would have no right or expectations from the new plan, and it’s possible they could lose any inheritance that was originally intended to go to them from the first Will. One way around this, however, is to specifically distribute assets upon the first spouse passing away.

How to create a Reciprocal Will

Some who decide on a Reciprocal Will want to establish and execute it through a licensed attorney. Often they’ll put together a draft list of the items they agree on ahead of time, and that can become the basis for the actual Will drafted by the attorney. But there are other options, too. Some will go the Do-It-Yourself route, using a free downloadable template they get on the internet. Others will use a trusted online estate planning platform like Trust & Will. 

To begin, couples should simply sit down and go through the possibilities of what would need to be decided or distributed on passing. It’s a safe bet to say that anything that’s an asset should be included, and liabilities need to be addressed as well. If it’s possible to arrive at a mutual agreement on just about all the items included, finishing and formalizing the document will be simple. 

Reciprocal Wills can be an excellent tool for couples to use when they have the same goals and want a strong, clear plan about how their estate should be handled. 

Ready to create your own will or any other estate planning documents? Why wait another day, when our team here at Trust & Will can help you get your estate plan done in just a few minutes, with just a few clicks. Take our free quiz to see where you should get started, or compare our different estate planning options today!

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