Updating Your Will

Creating your will is only half the battle, you must keep it up to date with any changes that will affect it. You may only need to change or add a few things or need to make major changes. Only you can do this; your Power of Attorney or Executor cannot. While there are many reasons you would need to alter a will, it is best to review it every 3-5 years, even if nothing has changed.

Creating a New Will

The cleanest way to update your will is to just create a new one. The process is similar to the original creation process, but is less complicated, since you have already done most of the work, such as gathering assets and determining beneficiaries, executors, and guardians for your children.

If you are planning to make major changes or additions, it is best to invalidate your current will and start from the beginning. Since there are so many details involved, a new will makes it easier to change how your assets will be distributed, unless they are otherwise accounted for in an addendum/codicil to your will. 

Consider creating a new will when any of these events happen.

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You get married or divorced.

  • Some states automatically revoke anything you leave your ex-spouse in your will upon your divorce, others do not.
  • You will want to specify what you want to leave your former spouse, even if you are not going to leave them anything.

Someone becomes your common law spouse or domestic partner

You add a new child/grandchild through birth, marriage (stepchild), or adoption as a beneficiary

The death of your spouse, domestic partner, or children/grandchildren

Your children are no longer minors and you want any inheritance to go directly to them

You want to change how your property is to be divided and/or change beneficiaries

When a beneficiary becomes disabled and requires special care, which is better done by moving the intended assets to a trust.

You want to make changes in your estate plan to reduce taxes and/or avoid the probate process

There are any changes in federal or state laws concerning your estate that make trusts or other financial planning tools a better option.

You move to another state with a different probate process or laws that will change your estate plan

Revoking a Will

In order for your new will to take effect you must revoke the previous one.

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You can use the new will to do this.

You simply include a statement in the introduction/first article using acceptable legal language, such as “I hereby revoke any and all wills and codicils heretofore made by me.”

Some states allow you to revoke your will by intentionally destroying it, such as by burning, tearing up, or shredding.

Even if you use your new will or other way to revoke the old one, consider destroying it as well.

Multiple wills can cause confusion, so destruction of your prior will helps prevent debates about which document accurately reflects your wishes.

Altering a Will Using Codicils (Addenda or Additions)

You can’t change your will by simply penciling in additions to the current will or crossing out parts you no longer want. You need to create a new document for that purpose. It can be a new will, as above, but you can also create a codicil that outlines the changes you want in your current will.

A codicil/addendum is most useful when you want to make small or simple changes. The major reason to use an addendum is these situations is that you can change, replace, or add items to your will without having to redo the entire body of the will. This can be a major undertaking if your will is very long or complex.

A codicil may be the better option if you simply need to make any one of these changes.

  • Add or remove an heir or other beneficiary.
  • Add new property/assets or remove any that are sold, given away, or otherwise lost.
  • Decide to leave all or part of your estate to charity.
  • Change your executor, or alternative executor
  • Change your child’s guardian

Aside from avoiding the need for a new will, creating an addendum/codicil has its pros and cons.

Pros


They can allow you to make more detailed or specific requests.

They can perform other functions, such as messages to your heirs.

You can add as many as you need. Remember, they will also need updating if things change.

Once created they are easier to manage.

Cons


Codicils have to be in a specific format with specific language, which may vary by state.

It is possible for them to become separated from the will, so take care to keep them in the same folder or file.

If the addendum is complex or you are unable to include the correct language and format you will need to get help.

If done incorrectly, they may:

  • contradict something in the body of the will
  • cause more confusion than clarity
  • be invalid and leave decisions about the content up to the probate court

Creating a Codicil/Addendum

A codicil has to be done in a similar process to your will, with an opening paragraph, a paragraph with the changes you are making, a closing paragraph, and the proper signatures and statements of yours, the witnesses, and the notary public.

Adding New Codicils to Make Will Changes

After the opening paragraph/introduction, you can just add paragraphs as needed.

To detail these changes, using various specific forms and documents can make it easier to perform some tasks.

You must make sure you have the correct form for the task.

Not only can you use a Beneficiary Designation Form to list beneficiaries, but also to account for all of your assets and even be very specific about how and when they are distributed.

A Personal Property Memorandum can also make it easier to be more specific about individual items, if you spread them around more.

So, instead of a statement leaving all your furniture to your spouse you can distribute each piece to the person most likely to appreciate it by being specific.

For instance, you can use this flexibility to leave, your favorite recliner to your best friend, jewelry to your daughter, a particular family heirloom to your sister, and art to the person who admired it the most

Other documents that can record specific instructions include College Investing Plan Accounts, Joint Tenant with Right of Survivorship and Tenants by Entirety accounts, Annuities, Health Savings Account, Transfer on Death account, and Payable on Death account.

In addition to who will receive your assets, you can also be specific about how you wish your assets to be managed after your death.

If any of your assets have monetary value, you may want to instruct your Executor to manage those assets in a specific way.

For example, you may want credits or points or cash values to be redeemed for cash before being passed on, rather than transferring the ownership.

If you have assets that will continue to generate revenue you may prefer they be transferred to someone who can continue to manage them, rather than be sold and the cash being passed on.

Closing Paragraphs

After you have included all of the changes to your will, you should insert the following paragraphs.

In the event that any statement in this Codicil contradicts the terms of my Last Will and Testament dated {insert the date of the will}, the terms of this Codicil shall control.

In all other respects I reaffirm and republish my Last Will and Testament dated {insert the date of the will}.

There should also be lines for you, the witnesses, and the notary public to sign and fill in the date.

All states require that the codicil be signed by you, in front of witnesses, who must watch you and each other sign.

Like the will, your state determines the number of witnesses needed and whether it has to be notarized, though it is always a good idea.

There may also be certain statements that are required to be in the codicil above the signatures of yours, the witnesses, and the notary. This is where an expert helps.

Changing an Existing Codicil

If you have existing codicils, the process of changing it should include the specific paragraph of the will which is being changed, and the paragraph that will replace it. Repeat this for each paragraph of your will you want to change.

To completely delete a paragraph indicate that “Paragraph ____ of my Last Will and Testament is hereby deleted in its entirety.”

To add a new paragraph, you could write: “My Last Will and Testament is hereby amended to add the following as Paragraph ___,” then include the new paragraph.

General References

Changing a Will. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 9, 2019.

Checklist: Reasons to Update Your Will & Estate Planning Documents. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 9, 2019.

DeLoe R. Changing a Will: When Should You Do It? legalzoom website. Posted: November 2015. Accessed: October 8, 2019.

Haman E. How to Write a Codicil to a Will  legalzoom website. Posted: June 2015. Accessed: October 8, 2019.

Sember B.  How to Change a Will. legalzoom website. Posted: June 2015. Accessed: October 8, 2019.

How to Revoke a Will. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 9, 2019.

What is the best way to update my will? NOLO website. Accessed: October 9, 2019.