Joint Wills for Couples: Mirror Wills vs Mutual Wills

Joint wills are a way for couples with similar wishes to execute a will that benefits each other, should one partner pass away. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of the two types of joint wills – mirror wills and mutual wills.

What is a joint will?

Joint wills are for couples with similar wishes to make a will that equally benefits them, should one pass away. Whether you're a married couple, civil partners, or are none of the above, a joint will is important for your peace of mind in the long term.

So, a standard joint will might say…

  • When I die, my spouse, as sole beneficiary, inherits everything.
  • When the surviving spouse passes away, our estate passes to our children.

You don't have to have a spouse or partner to to qualify for a joint will. You can enter into a joint will with a sibling, a friend, a business partner, or anyone you trust enough.

Why you should have a will

Without a will, your estates will be shared out according to specific rules. These rules are known as the rules of intestacy. Without a will, you're called an intestate person.

Under these rules, only civil partners, spouses, and other closer relatives can inherit. For peace of mind, it's best to legally stipulate what you and your partner wish to happen to your estate when you die.

What types of joint wills are there?

There are two kinds of joint wills you’ll likely come across:Both individuals have the freedom to cancel mirror wills without requiring consent from the other party. This flexibility allows for adaptation to evolving circumstances, which is advantageous. However, it can also pose a challenge. It is crucial to have peace of mind knowing that your partner will not alter their will after your passing and distribute your assets to individuals whom you did not wish to inherit them.

  • Mutual Wills
  • Mirror Wills

In essence, they're identical. Each are legal documents stating one party's agreement to leave all their worldly possessions to the other, should they die. These wishes are then 'mirrored' by the other party. In the will, they also name beneficiaries who inherit after the surviving partner dies.

What’s the difference between mirror and mutual wills?

Mutual and mirror wills are similar, there's only one clause separating them. Mutual wills can't be altered after the death of one of the partners.

Once signed, mutual wills become legally binding agreements. This means that if you remarry or have another child, you can’t include them in any new will.

Due to their flexibility, mirror wills are often the more popular choice for couples and solicitors alike.

That’s not to say mutual wills can’t be changed or even revoked. It's important to remember that you can still update your will, if necessary. However, both parties must be present and consent to any new changes. Any change to one will is then reflected in the other.

Who is the executor in a mirror will and a mutual will?

The spouse, civil partner or partner is named as an executor in more cases than not. However, it's important to consider appointing at least one more executor. This way, there's another person on your will if both you and your partner die at the same time. You and your partner can work together to find someone you both trust to care for your estate upon your passing away.

What is a mirror will?

Mirror wills are a type of will where the wishes of one person largely reflect the wishes of the other – hence the name ‘mirror’. Generally, but not always, two people will leave everything they own to each other, then to their children if the other person dies.

The result is that everything goes to the surviving person when one of them passes away. The two people will also generally agree on where everything goes when the second person passes away or if they die at the same time. 

What are the pros of having a mirror will?

Making mirror wills with your partner has many benefits. For example: 

  • Your partner inherits everything. By making a mirror will you’re ensuring the financial security of your partner if you pass away first. This is important if you’re not married, as they might not be legally entitled to inherit your assets. 
  • You’ll be providing for your children. Making a mirror will ensures that any children you have with your partner will inherit your estate. You can also protect your children by appointing a guardian (should both you and your partner pass away before they reach the age of 18) and a trustee to protect your estate until your children are old enough to inherit it. 
  • You can name additional executors. Usually, with a mirror will, your partner will be the sole beneficiary as well as the executor. However, that means that you can appoint additional executors. This ensures that should you and your partner die at the same time, all wishes can still be carried out. 
  • The wishes don’t have to be identical. Although the key feature of mirror wills is that both partners’ wishes are the same, they can have some small differences. For example, additional executors or differing funeral arrangements. 
  • You can avoid inheritance taxInheritance tax usually exempts any items inherited from one spouse to another. This tax benefit is then passed to the surviving spouse. So, when the second spouse dies, all their assets can be passed on with twice the inheritance tax-free allowance. This includes anyuting they've inherited from their deceased spouse.
  • It can be revoked if circumstances change. Perhaps your relationship status changes, an additional executor dies, or you just change your mind. If so, you can update or revoke your mirror will at any time. 

What are the cons of having a mirror will?

Mirror wills can be revoked by either person at any time without having to get approval from the other. In many ways this is an advantage – it gives you both the flexibility to deal with changing circumstances. But it can also be a problem.

You must be able to be sure that after your death, your partner won’t change their will and pass on your estate to people you didn’t want to receive it. For example, redirection of assets to a new partner, or new children. This may leave your chosen beneficiaries without the inheritance they were expecting.

Let’s say you and your partner agree to leave your house and money to your children. If you die, it’s technically possible for your partner to alter the will. They'd be able to disinherit them and give your family heirlooms to their new spouse.

Should you or your partner need to move into a care home, you may find the fees will eat into estates. So, even if you’ve agreed to give your children (or anyone else, for that matter) everything, they may not end up receiving the full dividends of your estate.

What is a mutual will?

Mutual wills are immovable once either participant passes away; they cannot be changed or altered.

When both partners are still alive, the will can be changed at any time. However, when one partner dies, the other is bound to the terms of the will. At this stage, the will cannot be updated, nor can a new one be made to challenge it.

What are the pros of having a mutual will?

The main benefit of a mutual will is that you can be sure that your wishes will be followed.

Unlike mirror wills, mutual wills can’t be changed when one partner dies. This means that you don’t have to worry about your estate getting into the wrong hands after you pass away.

Furthermore, while mutual wills are inflexible after one partner passes away, they can be altered at any time provided both partners are alive and have testamentary capacity.

What are the cons of having a mutual will?

The main disadvantage of a mutual will is that it can’t be updated when one partner passes away. Unfortunately, this can lead to disputes over how the estate should be distributed, and the will being contested by disappointed family members and friends.

When the first partner dies, this isn’t a problem – the surviving partner simply inherits everything. The issue is when the surviving partner passes away and the estate is passed on to the next set of beneficiaries. This is particularly true when there’s a long time between the deaths and circumstances are different. For instance, if new wealth has been made and new relationships have developed.

For example, the surviving party may have got remarried and had more children. This new family wouldn’t inherit under the terms of the mutual will.

Similarly, if you leave your estate to your children, any future grandchildren wouldn’t benefit from your will.

In both cases, this could cause disputes between family members which lead to the will being contested.

Choosing the right joint will

With far more pros than cons, mirror wills often tend to be the best option. Plus you have the ability to alter them as your life changes. Discuss the different types of joint wills with your partner, then talk to a solicitor or professional will writer who can advise you on the best joint will for your current circumstances.