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When do I need to update my will, and how do I do it?

UPDATED: December 18, 2019

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Any time you or your any family members experience a major life change, you should consider updating your will. A “major life change” can include an event like the birth of a new child, but it can also include any meaningful, long-term change to a relationship that could affect estate planning after your passing.

Reasons for Will Changes

Typical reasons for changing or updating a will include:

(1) Marriage or divorce;

(2) Birth or adoption of a child;

(3) Death of a family member or beneficiary;

(4) Changes in federal estate tax laws or other state tax laws;

(5) Substantial changes in the value of your estate; and,

(6) Any changes in the nature of your property holdings. For example, your will may leave the farm to your son, and the ranch to your daughter, and half of the balance to your son and daughter. If you then sell the farm, your daughter will be left with more (the whole ranch plus one half of everything else) than your son (who would get only one half of the balance).

More Reasons for Will Updates

Additional reasons for will updates include the following:

(1) A guardian, executor, or trustee moves away, dies, or is no longer willing or able to serve;

(2) Your children are no longer minors, or are old enough to handle financial matters on their own;

(3) You move to another state; or,

(4) You wish to eliminate gifts to certain beneficiaries.

How to Update Your Will

You will have two options if you decide to update your will: (1) You can prepare and sign a new will that revokes the earlier one, or (2) You can prepare and sign a codicil to the existing will. A codicil is a separate document that adds to or replaces one or more provisions in an existing will.

The best approach will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your situation. For example, sometimes there are tax provisions that grant a preference to provisions in old wills, but not new wills. In this case, a codicil might be the best choice. A codicil might also make sense in situations where questions might arise about your mental competence. If a codicil is invalidated on these grounds, then the old will’s other provisions still stand.

Codicils were used often in the past because they were less time-consuming than the creation of a new will. However, computer programs can now enable lawyers to quickly make revisions of any kind to a will in order to keep it up to date. Even minor revisions can be incorporated safely, accurately, and in full consideration of any new statutes or tax regulations that may have taken effect since your last will update. Contact your local wills and trusts lawyer to ensure that you have taken all the necessary aspects of your situation into account.

Never try to change a will by writing in the margins, crossing out words, lines, or sections of the original will. This only invites confusion, and is likely to lead to drawn-out conflicts over your will. Again, if you have any questions, see a qualified estate planning lawyer for legal advice.

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