Trusts and Estates

When and How to Change Your Will

Reviewed by Betsy Simmons Hannibal, Attorney
As your life changes, make your will stays up to date. You can either add an amendment to your will (called a codicil) or write a new will to replace the old one.

Once you have a will in place, your circumstances and the law can both change. Periodically revisit your will to assess whether you need to make any updates. If you do, you can either amend your current will or make a new one.

New or Changed Relationships

Keeping your will current isn't just about who gets your property. Because you can also use your will to name guardians and executors, you'll want to make sure those terms are up-to-date as well.

In sum, keep track of who've you've named as beneficiaries, guardians, and executors -- and make sure the terms continue to reflect your wishes.

Include New Assets

Also update your will to include any newly acquired assets. Most wills include a "residuary clause" that names the beneficiaries who will receive all money and property not specifically named in the will document -- including any property you acquire after making your will. So, if after making your will, you make any large or important purchases, make sure your you want your residuary beneficiaries to get those assets. If you don't, make a new will.

Also, consider whether you want any new assets to be transferred without probate. All property that is transferred through your will goes through probate. Probate can be a long and expensive process,and it's usually best to transfer as much as possible outside of probate. So if you acquire new property, instead of making a new will, you may want to put the new property into a living trust or make a plan using use another probate avoidance tool.

Update an Existing Will with a Codicil

You can make a change to an existing will by creating a "codicil." A codicil is a separate document that adds to or amends the terms of your original will. Every state requires certain legal formalities when creating an enforceable will, and codicils are usually subject to those same formalities. Usually this means that you need to be of sound mind when you make your codicil and that you and two witnesses need to sign it. A codicil does not need to be notarized.

Using a codicil is usually best if you have only small or very simple changes to make. Using a codicil to make many or complicated changes is more likely to create confusion, ambiguity, or disagreement because the court will need to read -- and make sense of -- both the will and the codicil.

Revoke Your Will and Create a New One

When the changes you need to make to a will are substantial, make a new will instead of simply amending an existing will with a codicil. You can cancel your original will by clearly stating in your new will your intention to revoke all prior wills.

A Trusts and Estates Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding changes made to wills is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed information and a discussion about your individual circumstances, contact an estate planning lawyer.

Questions to Ask Your Lawyer

  • Do I need to make a new will that includes my newly adopted child if my current will leaves my property to "all of my children"?
  • The executor I named in my will recently died, but the person I named as alternate executor is just fine. Do I need to make a new will?
  • Can I make a will codicil myself?
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