Disputes and Challenges in Joint Wills: How to Resolve Conflicts

Having estate planning goals that match your spouse is a good thing. Couples need to be on the same page when it comes to selecting a guardian for minor children, handling end of life care, and sharing their wealth with family members

But there is a point where agreement goes a little too far. And that is when a couple decides to merge their estate plans into a joint will

Although couples are allowed to execute a joint will under Mississippi law, the Palmer & Slay team generally advises against this practice. While the people who create a joint will have the best of intentions, we often find ourselves advising their family members that those are what the road to hell is paved with. 

What is a Joint Will?

A joint will is exactly what it sounds like: two wills rolled into one. It may also be called a “reciprocal will” or a “mutual will.” 

The two people merging their wills have identical estate planning goals, so they decide to both sign the same document. 

People who get joint wills are typically married couples or people in long-term romantic relationships. However, there have been cases in Mississippi where siblings teamed up to pass along family property. 

A Joint Will is Often Double Trouble 

Like any will, a joint will can be updated or revoked while the signers are alive and have the desire and capacity to do so. (The Palmer & Slay team actually encourages our clients to review their documents every few years to make sure no changes are desired.) 

But once one of the people who executed a joint will dies, the ability to alter the will dies too. And this is what creates a lot of problems. 

A couple’s estate planning goals may be identical now, but it is difficult to predict how someone’s life might change after their partner dies. 

  • What if they get remarried? Or otherwise form a relationship with someone they would like to remember in their will?
  • What if the surviving spouse needs to sell some assets to pay for medical care? 
  • What if the deceased spouse’s family snubs the survivor after their partner’s death?
  • What if an organization one spouse wanted to give money to after both spouses passed is one the surviving spouse hates? Or has closed up shop? 

Tying the hands of the surviving spouse never seems to work out well even though both spouses probably wanted a joint will to simplify and streamline their estate plan. 

Some families are also frustrated their loved ones executed a joint will when the taxman comes to call. Passing all of a couple’s assets on to the surviving spouse wastes the first partner’s estate tax exemption. This is a big problem for sizeable estates who will have to pay up when the second partner passes away.

Avoiding Problems & Resolving Disputes

There are a couple of things that can be done to avoid the problems that come with joint wills:

  • It is possible to insert language into a joint will allowing the surviving spouse to make certain changes after the first spouse dies. But any change is an invitation to a challenge from beneficiaries who are unhappy with it. The Mississippi courts often side with the upset beneficiaries because the joint will is treated like a contract between its creators. The person who died first fulfilled their duties, and allowing the surviving spouse to then change things is viewed as unfair. 
  • A much easier fix is executing separate wills. This allows the surviving spouse to make any changes he or she wishes. 

When a surviving spouse or would-be beneficiaries are already at the point where a joint will is causing issues, legal action is often the only possible solution. A lot of families are able to resolve the issues that arise outside of court, but some end up litigating their dispute and airing their family’s dirty laundry in public. 

Preserving Your Wealth. Protecting Your Loved Ones. 

While a joint will may seem like a great idea for love birds in the state of Mississippi whose estate planning goals are in perfect alignment, they often lead to problems after the first spouse dies. The Palmer & Slay team generally advises couples against creating a joint will because we have seen the headaches they can cause later on. 

Whether you are dealing with the unintended consequences of a joint will that was previously executed, or you were interested in getting one but have now changed your mind, our seasoned attorneys are ready to assist you. Please contact us today if you would like to schedule a meeting with our experienced estate planning team.