Creating a will is an important step in estate planning, but circumstances change. It is important to review your will and other estate planning documents periodically, and to assess whether or not they are still appropriate when certain events occur. For examples, you may want to change a will or make alterations to a trust if:
- A designated trustee, personal representative, or trustee predeceases you
- You marry or divorce after creating the will or trust
- You have a child or adopt a child after you create your estate planning documents
- You acquire property that you want to pass in a specific manner, rather than according to the general terms of your will or trust
When you determine that a change is necessary, process matters. Many people mistakenly believe that they can informally change a will through methods such as marking up an existing will with changes or attaching a signed note that describes the change they wish to make. Generally, these attempts are unsuccessful. In fact, an unsuccessful “self-help” attempt to change a will may have the worst of all possible effects, invalidating the existing will without putting anything in its place.
The Right Way to Change a Will
If you want to change a will in New Jersey, you generally have two options: writing a new will or adding an amendment to the will, which is called a “codicil.”
A codicil is typically used when you want to make a specific, straightforward change to a will. For example, if the personal representative nominated in your will predeceases you or becomes otherwise unable or inappropriate to serve in that capacity, your estate lawyer may draft a codicil substituting another person.
In other circumstances, the preferred approach may be to create a new will to replace the outdated will.
When is a New Will Required?
Generally, it is advisable to create a new will instead of adding a codicil when the desired changes are more extensive or complex. Similarly, a new will may be warranted to change a will that already has one or more codicils attached. Simply put, the more complicated changes are and the greater the likelihood of confusion or contradictions arising as a result of the amendment, the more sense it makes to create a new will rather than adding a codicil.
The new will, by its terms, will revoke any preceding will, eliminating the possibility of confusion created by partial amendments.
Your Estate Lawyer is the Best Source of Information about How to Change a Will
Talking to the attorney who drafted your original will is the best first step toward changing your will. If your original estate planning attorney is unavailable or you are no longer working with that firm, any experienced wills and probate attorney can assist you with updating your will. An attorney who has reviewed your will and talked to you about the intended changes can:
- Advise you as to whether a codicil or a freshly-drafted will is the best approach in your specific circumstances
- Ensure that any amendments are phrased clearly and in accordance with legal requirements
- Make sure that any codicil or new will is properly executed to ensure its validity
- Identify any other provisions of your will that may be impacted by the change and ensure that you have fully addressed the issues
Don’t make the mistake of attempting to change a will on your own, without sufficient knowledge of the required format and process. Protect your beneficiaries and ensure that your wishes are clearly stated in a valid legal document by seeking out a knowledgeable guide before you take action.