Joint wills

What are joint wills?

Joint wills’ is a term often used to describe the situation where two people plan how their estate will be disposed of when they die. Many couples own a great deal of their property jointly, and so it might be easy to presume that they can make a joint will too. 

If you want to make sure that each of you will benefit in the same way, regardless of who dies first, this is quite simple.

Similarly, if you want to make sure that people other than you or your partner benefit in the the same way, whichever of you dies first, this is quite straightforward, too.

Couples regularly sit down together to make their wills, such as civil partners each wishing to leave everything to the other. Or a married couple with children each wanting to give everything to their spouse or - if the spouse has died earlier - to their children.

But there is one important point to remember. Your plans may be made together, and your decisions may be joint decisions, but you are really making two wills - one for each of you.

Joint wills are really two wills

Although you might think you should be able to make a single will between you, English law does not really recognise the idea of a single will that disposes of two estates. A testator can only dispose of their own estate, not that of anyone else – even a person with whom they jointly own property while they are alive.

That's why the term 'mirror wills' reflects the true situation more accurately: two wills which make matching provision. You and your partner can easily achieve this: all you need to do is register under separate accounts, and each take our online interview. Which means that you can obtain wills that are practically identical, or that match on only a few provisions - it's entirely up to you.

So even though it is technically possible for a single document to be created and described as a joint will, in law it will be treated as two wills. It would have to be submitted for probate when the first of the couple dies, and then again on the death of the second. If the second person has not changed anything in the will, then it can be proved a second time.

There have been examples of joint wills being upheld by the law, but it is on the basis that they are two wills, separately proved; and the second person is at liberty to change the will anyway (unless it is a valid mutual will). 

‘Joint will’ may also be used to refer to:

  • mirror wills – which are common and perfectly valid in English law; and
  • mutual wills – which are also valid, but becoming less common as they are not very flexible.

For more information, please see our pages What is a mirror will? and Mutual wills -  what are they and when do you need one?

The most important thing is that the joint wishes of the couple are put into effect in the will, or possibly before then. The use of trusts – whether created by the will or separately – can help to achieve that certainty.