When circumstances pertinent to the terms of a Last Will and Testament change, as they sometimes do, making changes to the document is appropriate. While it is not mandatory to hire an attorney familiar with Probate or Estate Planning to make the changes in the Wiill, there are steps a testator (someone who dies with a will) should take to ensure the amendments are properly expressed and inserted to avoid confusion among beneficiaries after your death.
Finding a Probate or Estate Planning Lawyer
It's a good idea to ask knowledgeable and trusted family members or friends if they know of an experienced probate or estate planning lawyer they could recommend. Word of mouth is a valuable reference.
If you have an established professional relationship with a particular lawyer, contact them to see if they are knowledgeable about the kind of help you need. If they do not handle estate planning, ask if they can recommend a trustworthy attorney to help you.
Searching the Yellow Pages or other telephone directories to find attorneys with experience in estate planning is another way to find a lawyer. When you call their office, ask how the attorney bills their clients. Will you be charged an hourly or flat rate for the job? While some attorneys are hesitant to discuss their fee arrangements over the telephone, some are willing to do so. Also, ask whether the initial consultation is free or not. Be sure to take notes which you can refer back to in the future.
Search online to find lawyers in your area who handle wills and estates. Online ads often contain more detailed information than phone book ads. Still, a call to the lawyer's office is an important step in finding someone you trust. Even the way the secretary responds to your phone call will reveal a lot about the lawyer you are considering to hire.
Local and state bar associations also maintain lists of lawyers experienced in various areas of law. Some even have lawyer referral services, a useful service for clients who need legal assistance but do not know where to turn. Many bar associations offer these legal references free of charge.
What to do After Finding a Lawyer
After making an appointment to see the lawyer, create a detailed list of the changes you wish to make in your Last Will and Testament.
Depending on how complicated the changes are, the lawyer might advise you that what you really need is an entirely new Last Will and Testament document. If the changes are minor, the attorney will advise you about creating a Codicil to the existing document. A codicil is a legal document that allows a testator (a person who dies with a valid Will) to make minor changes to their existing Will so that an entirely new Last Will and Testament does not need to be created.
The codicil must be drawn up as formally as the original Will. Be sure the codicil makes a reference to the date the original Will was signed and includes clear language describing the minor changes the codicil makes to the original Will.
In most states, it is necessary to bring at least one witness with you when the Codicil (or original Will) is signed. This witness should be at least the age of majority in your state, which is usually 18 years old. They also can not have any personal interest in the Will. That means the witness can not be someone who will inherit money or property from the Will or codicil.
It is generally a good idea to leave the original will and codicil with your lawyer for safekeeping, although you might want to keep a copy for your records. Law offices with estate planning lawyers usually maintain fire-proof safes to protect these important and irreplaceable documents.
Changing a Will Without a Lawyer
If the original Will is in your possession, you can draw up your own codicil.
Type the changes you wish to make to the Will. Run spell check to ensure the text is clear and concise. There should be no ambiguities as to what your intentions are to prevent family feuds after you die.
Secure the necessary number of witnesses according to the laws of your state.
Sign and date the document in front of the witnesses.
Have the witnesses also sign and date the document, and include their addresses and other pertinent contact information required of witnesses in your state. If these witnesses cannot be located upon your death, but their presence is required by a Probate Court, the Probate Court could rule their signatures invalid. If their signatures are ruled invalid, the Will or codicil could then also be ruled void. If that happens, instead of dying testate and your assets distributed according to your stated wishes, state laws take over and your assets get distributed according to your state's laws.
- It is your legal right to disinherit someone if you choose to do so, although it's not easy to disinherit a spouse. Be certain the language in your Last Will and Testament or codicil is extremely clear about your intentions. It might be a good idea for your Will or codicil to briefly explain why you disinherited the individual so there is no ambiguity about your intentions.
- Some states require more than one person to witness the signing of a Last Will and Testament.
- Don't store the original of your Last Will and Testament in a safe-deposit box without first checking your state's laws regarding this type of safekeeping. In many states, a Probate Court Order is required to open the safe-deposit box of the deceased. If you wrote your Will or codicil yourself, find out if you can have those documents recorded and stored at your county courthouse. That way, your family will have easy access to the documents when they're necessary.
- Assess your Last Will and Testament on an annual basis to make certain it is up-to-date and still expressive of your final wishes.
- Change a Will using clear and concise language. Instead of utlizing language such as 'wish' or 'desire,' use 'devise' or 'bestow.' Using the correct language in your Will leaves little or no room for ambiguities regarding your final intentions.
- Even if you decide to change your will without a lawyer, consider having a lawyer review your Will and/or codicil to be certain the documents conform to your state's laws.