Can You and Your Spouse Write One Will for Both of You?
You and your spouse act as a team regarding all your property and all your responsibilities. There is no keeping score or hiding things from each other. It’s “our” bank account and “our” Christmas bonus, without regard to who contributed what. When it comes to caring for your elderly parents, the phrase “in-law” is not in your vocabulary; you and your spouse face your responsibilities toward the older generation together, just as you face your responsibilities toward your children together. You have been honest with each other about your wishes regarding your end-of-life care and regarding the distribution of your property after you die. Should spouses who trust each other and who have merged their finances write a will jointly? Maryland law allows you to do this, but from a practical perspective, joint wills are not for everyone. A Washington, D.C. estate planning lawyer can help you and your spouse decide whether to write a joint will.
Joint Wills and Maryland Law
A general principle in estate law is that what you decide the court should do with your property after you die is your business and no one else’s. You have the legal right to play favorites among your children, to give them equal shares of your estate even though one of them has made better financial decisions than the others, or even to disinherit them entirely because they are ungrateful brats. It is no one’s business whether you leave your estate to your children, your grandchildren, your siblings, your friends, the Baltimore Opera, or an alpaca rescue organization that has been soliciting donations on Facebook. You have no obligation to tell your relatives, while you are alive, what they will or will not inherit. The only person who has the right to override the provisions of your will is your spouse, if he or she survives you. Surviving spouses can claim a percentage of the decedent spouse’s estate, known as the elective share.
You even have the right to write your will jointly with your spouse. Most joint wills say that, when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse inherits everything. When the second spouse dies, the estate passes to the heirs listed in the will.
How a Joint Will Can Lead to Trouble
The biggest problem with joint wills is that, after the first spouse dies, the second spouse cannot change its provisions. What if, after your spouse dies, your children seem less and less deserving of an inheritance, and those adorable alpacas on Facebook seem more and more deserving? What if you remarry? The younger you are, the worse of an idea it is to sign a joint will. You could outlive your spouse by decades, bound by decisions made by your much younger self and your spouse’s much younger self.
Contact Us About Estate Planning for Couples
A Washington, D.C. estate planning attorney can help you make an estate plan where you and your spouse are on the same page. Contact Tobin, O’Connor & Ewing in Washington, D.C. or call 202-362-5900.