Estate PlanninG

What You Should Know About Updating, Executing, and Revoking a Will

If you're reading this, you already know that a will is a non-negotiable, foundational estate planning document.

However, according to Gallup, only 46% of US adults have a will. This number has remained consistent since 1990.

But simply creating a will does not mean that your estate plan is complete or final: your will may need to be updated occasionally. It may even need to be revoked and redrafted entirely.

Usually, revoking a will is a purposeful act on the part of the will-maker. But many states have laws that automatically revoke a will, or portions of it, in specific situations. Certain actions by a beneficiary can also revoke that person's interest in the will.

What's Included in a Will?

A will—formally known as a last will and testament—provides instructions about who should receive a person's money and property after their death and who they would like to care for their dependents. A basic will should specify the following:

  • Who receives personal assets (e.g., property, bank account balances, investments, business interests, and personal possessions) and in what amount

  • An executor or person responsible for making sure that instructions in the will are carried out

  • Guardian arrangements for minor children

When a person passes away, their will goes through a legal process called probate, usually in a probate court in the county where they lived. However, a different location may sometimes be required if, for example, the deceased person owned real estate in another county or state.

But if a person dies intestate (without a will), the court must follow state laws that control the distribution of a person's assets and the appointment of executors and guardians. Most people would rather make decisions about such important matters than leave them to the state. Yet state law will determine what will happen if a person does not have a will.

Creating a basic will does not have to be expensive or time-consuming. A will should be updated as life circumstances dictate. Some of these life changes include marriage or divorce, having a child, accumulating more wealth, buying new property, retiring, or moving to another state or country. The will maker might also have a change of heart about beneficiaries or a guardianship arrangement due to a personal falling out or changes in the circumstances of a beneficiary or potential guardian.

Estate planning attorneys generally recommend revisiting—and possibly updating—a will every few years. Even if the person who created the will has not experienced a major life event, periodic reviews are essential to ensure that it accurately represents their intentions and relevant law.

Updating an Existing Will

Amendments to a will are made using a legal document called a codicil. Like the execution of a will, executing a codicil usually requires that the person creating or changing their will sign the will or codicil in the presence of at least two witnesses.

Codicils are something of an anachronism dating to the time before computers when drafting a new will by hand was more onerous. Nowadays, creating a new will containing the amended portions is easier than it used to be. The American Bar Association also cautions that codicils can lead to confusion or legal challenges if they create ambiguities when read together with the provisions in the original will.

Using a codicil to make minor changes to a will—such as changing the executor—does not necessarily revoke it. However, in some states, a codicil can be used to republish or revoke a will.

Executing a New Will

Your estate planning lawyer may advise you that a codicil is not worth the potential problems it can cause and instead recommend that you make a new will. The new will must be properly executed in accordance with state law. In addition, the will should contain language that clearly states the will maker's desire to revoke all prior wills. However, there may be instances in which the will maker does not want all prior wills revoked (e.g., they may need to have a separate will for property owned in a foreign country).

Destroying an Old Will

The fastest way to revoke a will is to physically destroy it. States have different definitions of what qualifies as the destruction of a will. Usually, the state statute includes some variation of the phrasing that a person can revoke their will by "cutting, tearing, burning, obliterating, canceling, destroying, or mutilating" it. Note that this definition does not include making notes in the margin or placing an "X" through part of a will.

Most state laws provide that the destruction must be done with the intent and for the purpose of revocation, so accidentally destroying a will may not revoke it.

Electronic wills may have different definitions for revocation by destruction. Florida, for example, says that an electronic will or codicil is revoked when it is deleted, canceled, rendered unreadable, or obliterated.

The law may allow the will maker to direct another person to physically destroy a will on their behalf, provided that the will maker is there to witness it. State law may also require the presence of two additional witnesses. Depending on the state, there could be a presumption that the will was destroyed if it cannot be located. However, most states have processes by which lost wills may be proven by using copies and one or more disinterested witnesses. If the intent is to revoke a will, it is best to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

If the destruction of a will does not comply with state law requirements, the court may rule that it was improperly destroyed and treat it as though it is still in effect. Typically, when somebody destroys an old will, they make a new will. But if the old will is not legally revoked and a new one is created, the existence of multiple wills could lead to litigation.

Revoking a Will by Operation of Law

State law may provide that a will is revoked, in part or in full, if certain events take place, such as the following:

  • If a person gets divorced or has their marriage annulled, any part of the will that refers to their spouse or the spouse's family, is automatically revoked in many states.

  • There is a new will or codicil that includes provisions contradicting provisions in old will or codicil.

  • A beneficiary's interest is revoked under a "slayer statute" if the beneficiary kills the will maker.

Talk to an Estate Planning Lawyer If You Wish to Make Changes to Your Will

Whether you are making minor changes to your will or destroying the old one and starting from scratch, any revocation of your will must comply with state law. Otherwise, a court might not recognize your final wishes, which can produce consequences similar to not having a will at all, casuing your loved ones additional stress and potential conflict.

An estate plan should be updated every few years to take into account new milestones and directions as well as changes in the applicable law. Please contact us to schedule an appointment to discuss changes to your estate plan.

Call Santaella Legal Group, serving all of California, at (925) 831-4840, or reach out to us here.

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