Specification of target reliability levels is one of the key issues of the assessment of existing structures. ISO 13822:2010 and ISO 2394:2015 indicate procedures for specification of target reliability levels by optimisation of the total cost related to an assumed remaining working life of a structure. These approaches are critically compared with human safety criteria, with target levels based on a marginal life-saving costs principle, and with recommendations of present standards. Optimal target reliability levels are then derived in the representative case study for an existing structural member. It appears that the requirement to reach the same target reliability levels for existing and new structures is uneconomical. Decisions made in the assessment can result in the acceptance of the actual state or in the upgrade of an existing structure. Two reliability levels are thus needed – the minimum level below which the structure is unreliable and should be upgraded, and the target level indicating an optimum upgrade strategy. It is recommended that these levels be established using economic optimisation and the marginal life-saving costs principle, as both the approaches take into account the costs of safety measures and the failure consequences.