How to Make Changes to Your Will

Woman dressed in business jacket with pen in hand, making changes to her will at desk

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One of the most important steps in planning your estate is to create a last will and testament. It is not difficult to change a will. You can amend, modify, update, or even completely revoke your last will at any time—provided you're mentally competent.

You have a few options depending on what you want to change. However, be sure to talk to an estate lawyer in your state to make sure you are not doing anything that will void your will.

How to Change a Will 

Make sure you follow the letter of the law in your state so your legal will won't later be declared invalid because you made changes to it. State laws can differ, so it's advisable to have a local estate planning attorney review your finished product to make sure you've done everything right.

In some states, your mistake can be as minor as crossing things out and adding new provisions to your existing will in your handwriting. A will that's partially typed but with a few handwritten provisions can be declared entirely void, or the court won't honor the handwritten segments.

Create a Will Codicil 

You can make changes to your will by creating a codicil, a legal document that amends or supplements a will with full testamentary effect.

A codicil might be appropriate if one of your beneficiaries has gotten married, and you want to update their name, or if you've decided that you'd rather name someone else as executor.

A codicil is a secondary document attached to your original will, spelling out the change you want to make. Most states require that a codicil is prepared and signed according to the same rules that apply to wills. If your state requires that two witnesses watch you sign your will, you'll need two witnesses to watch you sign your codicil as well.

Make a Personal Property Memorandum 

You may be able to change your will by simply replacing the personal property memorandum. This accounting is a separate document that attaches to your will just like a codicil. However, this option only works if you initially included a memorandum when you originally made your will. If you did not include one in the original document, you could not use one to change the legal document.

The personal property memorandum is appropriate if you're leaving specific bequests—gifts—to specific beneficiaries rather than dividing your overall estate among them—such as 25% to each of your four children. This method works well if you want the signed World Series baseball to go to one beneficiary and the Van Gogh oil painting to go to another. If you no longer own a certain item of property or you want to change who should receive it, you can detach the old memorandum and replace it with a new one.

Unlike a codicil, a memorandum typically does not have to be signed or witnessed. However, you must refer to it in your will with a statement like, "I leave my personal property to my four children according to the memorandum attached to this will." Again, you can't later add a memorandum at a later date to make changes if your will doesn't initially mention one. 

Write a New Will 

It's often easiest to revoke your old will and write a new one if you want to make substantive changes. This replacement is especially true if your state requires that you follow all the same legalities for a codicil as you would if you were going to make a will.

Also, if you're making several small changes to your will or a significant one—like changing your beneficiaries—this is often the safest option. 

The critical part is making sure that your previous will is not honored after your death—you want your changes to be prevailing. You should specifically state in your new will that you're revoking all previous wills. List all previous wills by date if you've made more than one over the years. Now, get rid of the other, inaccurate wills.

Exactly how you should go about this depends on state law, so this is another reason you might want to consult with an attorney.

You may be able to write "REVOKED" on each page of your old will and sign or initial each page as well. Ideally, you'll call together witnesses to watch you tear it up or burn it, stating to them unequivocally that you're destroying your previous will. The court can't honor something that no longer exists, and your witnesses can testify to the occasion in court if need be. Just make sure you destroy any existing copies. 

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