Changing a Will: Everything You Need to Know

Updated July 18, 2023
7 min read
Paper titled "Last Will and Testament", house, pen, car, Themis, "Law" books

Introduction

Creating a last will and testament (will) and changing a will are both relatively easy to do. You can use a simple will form from a reliable provider to create your own will or use it as a guide when consulting with an attorney about drafting one. After you have created your will, it is critical to review it periodically, especially after major life events, to determine whether any changes to the will are necessary.

As your family evolves, the needs of your loved ones are likely to change. This can happen due to relocations, divorces, marriages, new additions, and many other reasons.

The factors below could make changing a will not only desirable but necessary to protect those needs:

  • Marriage;
  • New stepchildren;
  • Birth or adoption;
  • Divorce.

1. Changing a will because of marriage

Getting married is a common reason for changing a will. All states have laws regulating how much of a person’s estate will be inherited by their spouse if the person dies without a will. However, most people want to be sure their wishes are followed and that their surviving spouse is adequately provided for. Of course, if you and your spouse have purchased assets together, your will can only affect your ownership portion of that asset. Knowing whether you live in a community property state is vital to understanding your spouse’s rights upon death.

If you marry for the first time and do not have children, you will likely have an easier time changing a will and allocating assets. However, a person’s decisions may be complicated by second marriages or children. In these circumstances, it is wise to carefully consider your wishes and make the necessary changes to your will to reflect your new marital status.

2. Changing a will because of new stepchildren

No matter how much you love your new stepchildren, in most states, they are not entitled to receive a portion of your inheritance automatically. If you want your stepchildren to be provided for after your death, be sure to consider changing a will you already have or creating a new one to include them in the way that best reflects your wishes.

3. Changing a will because of the birth or adoption of children

While most state laws allow minor children to receive a portion of their parent’s estate, updating your will after having children is important. Rather than leaving it up to the state, changing a will shows how you want your children to be treated upon your death. If you have minor children, someone else will need to manage any assets left to them. You may wish to appoint a person of your choice to manage their property as a guardian, or you may choose to place assets in a trust for your children.

Regardless, when a new child joins your family, it may be helpful to discuss your circumstances with an experienced attorney to be sure that your wishes are known. An estate planning attorney can help with creating a new will, forming a trust, changing a will, and working through other estate planning needs.

4. Changing a will because of divorce

You may want to consider changing a will after a divorce. Depending on your state, a legacy to a former spouse may or may not be honored after a divorce. Thus, divorced spouses may want to review their legal wills, decide whether they wish to make any bequests to their former spouses, and make any necessary changes to the will.

How To Make Changes to Your Will

Fortunately, changing a will without attorney assistance is possible. A will can be updated anytime, provided the grantor is mentally competent. If you lack mental capacity, however, you will no longer be able to update your will. When changing a will, notify your executor of the location of your new will.

How you amend your will depends on your circumstances. Regardless of the changes you want to make, it may be helpful to consult with an estate planning lawyer in your state to be sure the changes are made correctly without accidentally invalidating your current will. The following are three ways to make changes to your will.

Create a will codicil

A will codicil is generally used to make a simple will amendment. Changing a will with a codicil means attaching a separate legal document to the original will. The execution and format of a will codicil must follow the exact requirements as the original will in order to be valid. For example, if your state requires two witnesses and a notary to execute a will, the same must be done for a codicil. 

Therefore, although changing a will without a lawyer is possible, you may consider consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your area before altering your will. Codicils are best used for making minor changes to a will, such as changing the executor or updating a beneficiary’s legal name. When changing a will, notify your newly appointed or renamed executor of the update. This option, however, is not best suited for making significant changes to your will.

Make a personal property memorandum

You might wish to change only a personal property memorandum if you referenced that document in your original will. A personal property memorandum is a statement of who you want to receive your moveable personal property. Be sure to consider your desires carefully and make any adjustments as soon as possible to avoid suspicions of changing a will just before death.

Changing a will with a personal property memorandum can be simple. However, if you did not have a personal property memorandum as an attachment to your original will, you would not be able to use this document as an amendment to your will. Instead, you would need to either create a new will or make a will codicil. When changing a will, it may help to seek the counsel of an experienced estate planning lawyer to discuss what is needed to make the desired modifications.

Create a new will and revoke the original will

If changing a will with anything significant, it may be easier and preferable to create a new will that revokes all prior wills rather than updating an existing will. Many testators feel more peace of mind from creating an entirely new will, which can help clarify their wishes to all relevant parties. 

Be sure there is a proper revocation of the previous will when changing a will. Notify your executor of the update and the location of the new will. Depending on your state laws, you may want to have witnesses. You want to ensure no confusion about your intentions to help prevent conflict among your heirs. A qualified estate planning or probate attorney in your state may be able to help guide you through changing a will effectively.

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Who Can Change a Will?

Only the person who created a will can change it. Changing a will can be done at any time. Fortunately, a testator may change a will as many times as needed as long as he or she is mentally competent. However, if a testator is deemed mentally incompetent, no changes may be made to that person’s will legally.

Changes to Other Estate Documents

When you experience significant life events that make updating your will desirable, you may also need to change other estate planning documents. Consider whether your power of attorney documents, personal representative designation, living will, living trusts, bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, stocks, and other assets need to be modified. Many of these assets transfer outside of a person’s will upon his or her death, so changing a will just before death will not affect these assets.

You may need to use a change of beneficiaries form provided by your insurance company to update who will inherit your life insurance proceeds, as this cannot be done by changing a will. You may also use a transfer-on-death form to assign beneficiaries to certain financial accounts. When considering changes to your will and other estate planning documents, it is important to understand how the law applies to all your assets. While changing a will without attorney assistance is possible, consider seeking advice from a probate or estate planning lawyer in your area for help with these important decisions.

Conclusion

As long as a person is mentally competent, creating or changing a will may be simple. However, changing a will just before death may cause issues when family members suspect incompetency. The type of changes you’d like to make and your unique financial situation will determine the type of documents you will need. You may need to create a simple codicil or change a personal property memorandum. However, these legal documents must be created and executed according to the laws of your state to be sure they are valid and do not inadvertently void your original will. 

The wisest course of action may be to seek advice and guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney in your state. Of course, if you want to make significant changes to your will, it may be best to create an entirely new will and revoke the prior will. It is essential to consider the other estate documents that may need to be changed, such as beneficiary designations for life insurance policies and other assets. Additionally, when changing a will, notify your executor of the update and the location of the valid will.

Article by
Yevheniia Savchenko
Lawrina

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Product Content Manager at Lawrina. Yevheniia creates user interface copies for Lawrina products, writes release notes, and helps customers get the best user experience from all Lawrina products. Also, Yevheniia is in charge of creating helpful content on legal template pages (Lawrina Templates) and up-to-date information on US law (Lawrina Guides). In her spare time, Yevheniia takes up swimming, travels, and goes for a walk in her home city.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the product or UX content for Lawrina, feel free to contact Yevheniia directly at y.savchenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.