Another Reason to Avoid Joint Wills

A decision by the Supreme Court of Montana, In the Matter of the Estate of Marilyn Hendrick, overturned a lower court running concerning a joint will.

The facts of the case are as follows: Marilyn and Stanley Hendrick executed a joint will. Each had three children from a previous marriages. Stanley died in 1995. In 1996, Marilyn transferred much of her property to her trust. Marilyn’s three daughters and one of Stanley’s children were the beneficiaries of the trust.

Marilyn died in 2012. Under the terms of the joint will, the residue of Marilyn’s estate was to be divided equally among the six children. The residue consisted of assets totaling about $235,000. Those same assets comprising the residue were transferred in 1996 by Marilyn to her trust.

One of the children from Stanley’s marriage who was not a beneficiary under Marilyn’s trust filed a petition objecting to the distribution of the trust assets according to the terms of the trust which did not include her as a beneficiary.

The lower court ruled in favor of the child and ordered that the trust assets were to be distributed equally among the six children.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Montana reversed the lower court’s decision holding that because the joint will left to the surviving spouse (Marilyn) the “entire residue” of the property owned by the deceased spouse (Stanley) at the time of his death, the will plainly left the entire residue of Stanley’s estate to Marilyn. The only explicit restriction on this devise was that Marilyn was not allowed to alter, amend or revoke the will.

The Supreme Court went on to state that it may not construe the general purpose of the will in a way that alters its specific provisions by imposing further restrictions on Marilyn’s inheritance or granting additional rights to the children.

Joint wills are an invitation to litigation. It is almost always best for each spouse to have his own will. The same applies to joint trusts. The cost of putting in place a second will or trust for the other spouse is miniscule compared to the cost of litigation. Pennywise and pound foolish is the appropriate analogy.

Consult your estate planning attorney for further information.