Statistical studies show that 55% of Americans die without a will or estate plan. (http://www.americanbar.org/groups/real_property_trust_estate/resources/estate_planning/estate_planning_faq.html). If you one of the 45% of people who has put in the effort to create a will or estate plan, congratulations! But did you know you’re only half way done? A will or estate plan is only effective if it is current. If you are facing a major life change such a marriage, divorce or new baby you probably have your hands full. Life is busy on its own and with a major life event things can become overwhelming. One thing that can get lost in the shuffle is the need to update your will. If you already have a will and you don’t adjust it to match your life changes you can end up leaving a document behind that doesn’t reflect your true wishes at the time of your death. In addition, relationships among family and friends can be turbulent and you could end up with an administrator or beneficiary that is no longer appropriate. Change is inevitable. When change happens, make sure your will changes too. Here are ways you can update your will and some relevant items to keep in mind.
Create a new will. In order to execute changes to your original will you can create a new will. If you choose to go this route you have to be certain to revoke the original will to prevent any confusion. Your new will should explicitly revoke any previous wills. You also need to destroy the old will; the original and any copies that were made. According to http://www.alllaw.com/articles/nolo/wills-trusts/how-tell-if-will-was-revoked-replaced.html, “The best way to revoke a will is to make a new will, stating that you’re revoking the old one. But it’s also possible to revoke a will the old-fashioned way, by tearing it up or throwing it into a roaring blaze in the fireplace. If you come across a will that’s been marked up—for example, lines drawn across the text, with “revoked” or similar words written on it, the result may not be clear. Is there doubt about who did the crossing out? If surviving family members don’t agree, you may need witnesses to testify about what happened or even get a handwriting expert to weigh in.” If this situation occurs your will has created more problems than it has solved. Legal fees and handwriting experts can be costly financially and emotionally. If there is a dispute over a will it can be a long, protracted legal battle. Wills are created to make sure that your final wishes are carried out. If you do not make changes to your will correctly it can cost your estate and loved ones time and money.
Destroy your old will: Another important item is to make sure that you destroy any and all copies of the existing will. If there is a copy of your original will a family member may present that copy to the court as a legal document. While the court will generally not accept a copy of a will as valid without proof of extenuating circumstances, this can still create confusion and a possible legal battle. Work with an attorney to ensure that any and all changes to your will are done in such a way as to execute your wishes and leave no room for ambiguity.
Create a codicil. Another way to make changes to your will is to create a codicil. Merrim-Webster defines a codicil as, “a document that adds or changes something in a will” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/codicil). A codicil is most often used for minor changes, like modifying small bequests. A codicil needs to be executed in a manner similar to your will. Your codicil may need to be witnessed and signed much like your will to be legally accepted. Work with an attorney to make sure your codicil is the best method to modifying your will and that it is properly written and recorded so that it is a valid legal document.
A few words of caution. Whether or not you have a major life changing event, you should be reviewing your estate plan at least every couple years. Over the years, your goals and mindset may change, necessitating adjustments and changes to your estate planning strategy. Here are a few more tips to consider when revising your will.
Review your beneficiaries on all accounts regularly.
Don’t make handwritten adjustments to your will. This may invalidate the document in its entirety. When in doubt, consult with an expert. It is just not worth the risk that your self-made changes could do more harm than good and leave decision making regarding your estate to the laws of the state.
Wills are different documents than trusts and are handled differently. Seek legal counsel to make changes to your specific document.
Don’t neglect to appoint a second executor. There is always a chance that your appointed representative could predecease you. Make sure your will addresses this possibility.
Don’t assume. Don’t assume that your family will just know and follow your wishes. Don’t assume that you can create your own legal document. Assumptions can lead to incorrect paperwork and misunderstandings that lead to family rifts.
Proper estate planning can be a tremendous gift to the loved ones that you leave behind. When updating your will make sure that your wishes are laid out in a well-crafted and valid legal document. Any errors or inaccuracies can create confusion, family in-fighting and expensive legal battles as loved ones try to interpret your true intentions.