When and how should I revise my will?

Estate plans should be reviewed periodically to make sure they remain current and viable. After any major change in your life you should take out your will to see if anything needs to be added, deleted or changed. You should also review your will every five years or so to be sure it is still current, but be aware that you cannot alter your will by simply crossing something out or adding something new. In fact, making that kind of handwritten change could invalidate your entire will.

By law, to change your will, you must either make a new signed and witnessed will, or add a signed and witnessed addition, called a codicil, to the existing will. If you are revoking your will, you should make a written declaration that you intend to revoke the old will.

Although there are no hard and fast rules about when you should make a new will or when a codicil will suffice, as a general guideline, simple changes, perhaps one of the beneficiaries or a different executor, can be accomplished by codicil. Any more extensive change, such as a new beneficiary to inherit a significant portion of your property, a significant increase or decline in your assets, or a change in your marital status, requires a major revision of your will.

Here are some examples of when a will should be revised and recommendations for how to accomplish it.

Change in Family Status:

Marriage
You should make a new will after you marry. In most states, your spouse is legally entitled to a fixed portion of your estate after you die unless you write otherwise in your will. Depending on where you live, the amount may be as much as half of what you own. If you would like to leave your spouse more or less, you need to revise your will. A codicil will not be sufficient.

Divorce
A divorce does not always revoke an existing will so an ex-spouse may be entitled to claim a share of your property! In many states, a divorce or annulment does not affect a gift to your former spouse made in your will. As a result, your ex-spouse could still inherit what you had originally intended. Some states revoke the entire will following divorce. You need to check the laws of your state, but no matter what state you live in, you should change your will immediately after a divorce. A codicil is not sufficient.

New Baby
Whether you give birth or adopt a baby, you need to update your will because your baby will need a legal guardian should anything happen to you and your spouse. A codicil will be sufficient if you are adding an additional child to an existing will and not changing the guardian, but if it’s for a first child and a new guardian, a new will should be written.

New Stepchildren
Unless you legally adopt them, stepchildren have no right to inherit from you. If you want to leave them a share of your estate or something special, be sure to revise your will, or write a new one, to include them. If you only wish to add a separate gift for them, that can be done by codicil.

A Child Dies
In this event, rewrite your will.

A New Grandchild
If you wish to give your grandchild a share of your estate, write a new will. A separate gift for them can be done by codicil.

Read our companion article on other reason to change your will.