A will is the document that sets forth your wishes about how your assets should be distributed and how any minor children you have will be cared for if you pass away before they reach adulthood. It is an important estate-planning tool and a critical form of protection for your family and your property, but when is the last time you looked your will over?
When you last worked with your family law lawyer to draft your will, your life may have looked very different. If you have experienced any major life event (like a marriage, birth of a child, or substantial change in income) it is time to update your will.
To revise an existing will that has already been signed by witnesses, you have two choices. You can either make something called a “codicil,” or you can create a new will. We explain both to help you determine which option is best for you.
Why Is a Will So Important?
Before we discuss why and when to change your will, let us explain why it is important for every adult to have a will, and what you stand to lose without one.
Here are some of the reasons why a will is so important:
- A will allows you to decide who gets what assets after you die.
- A will allows you to keep assets away from people you do not want to get them (like an estranged family member for example.)
- A will allows you to name caregivers for your children if they are still minors when you pass away.
- A will allows you to give gifts and charitable donations, saving money on estate taxes.
- A will allows you to give clear instructions on how to distribute your assets, making the process easer and faster for your heirs.
While there are oral wills, and wills that are signed but not witnessed, a will prepared by a will, trusts, and estate lawyer that is written and witnessed by others is always ideal. Referred to as a testamentary will, this type of will is the most secure and leaves little room for challenges from family members or business associates after your passing. Without a will, your affairs are left for state officials or the courts to decide. That leaves a lot of unknowns – not to mention family battles.
Write a Codicil
Now that we understand the value of a testamentary will, let us explain your options if you need to change your will at any time. A codicil is a legal document that acts as an addendum to your original will. It allows you to make changes without having to create an entirely new document.
Codicils were much more common before personal computers were created because writing entire wills by hand was a tedious job. With technology, wills are much easier to change, so codicils are not quite as popular. But they are still effective if you have minor changes to make to an existing will
Here are some of the changes you can make with a codicil:
- Change your executor
- Add or remove beneficiaries
- Add or remove gifts, or change the amounts
- Update a guardian selection (if you have children under 18)
How to Write a Codicil?
Unless you have extensive changes to make to your will, a codicil offers a simple and efficient way to make minor updates.
First, state that the document is a codicil to your will. Write your full name and address along with the date. Explain that you are of sound mind and not making these changes under pressure from anyone else.
Explain, in clear detail, the changes you are making. If you are referring to other people, use their full legal name. If you are making changes involving money, specific dollar amounts and/or percentages. Be sure to include a statement that your codicil should override your original will.
Sign and witness your codicil just like you did with your original will. There is no limit on how many codicils you can add to your will. However, multiple codicils can potentially confuse your loved ones, so if you have several, it is worth considering creating a new will altogether.
Although, we have provided an overview of the codicil process, it is always best to enlist the guidance of a family law attorney to make any changes to your estate plan. Any mistakes or oversights can leave your assets in jeopardy.
Make a New Will
If you have multiple or extensive changes to make to your will, or it has been a long time since you created the original document, it is a good idea to make a new will.
Before drafting a new will, you need to revoke the first one. To do that, draft a written statement saying that you revoke any prior wills and codicils you have previously created. Handwritten wills are not recommended, and wills and other estate planning documents should be reviewed by an experienced wills, trusts, and estate lawyer.
It may be time to change your will if you:
- Add a child to the family through birth or adoption
- Get married or divorced
- Have a significant financial setback or windfall
- Develop serious health problems
- Become a grandparent
- Move to a new state
- Want to add or remove a beneficiary
Even if you do not have any major life changes, it is smart to review your will every three to five years. If you do rewrite your will, be sure to destroy copies of past documents once the new one takes effect.
Choosing an Executor for Your Will
Now that you have an updated will, make sure you have chosen your executor wisely. The executor is living person who will be responsible for administering your estate. That can be a spouse, adult child, another family member, or a trusted friend. You can have co-executors if you wish.
Your executor carries out your wishes according to your will, making sure your assets are distributed properly and your bills and debts are paid.
How to Store Your Will?
The last thing you want your family to worry about after your death is looking for your will. Give copies to your family law attorney, your executor, and your heirs. Keep a copy in a fireproof and waterproof safe in your home as well, giving instructions to your family on how to access it if there is a lock or code.
A Will is Just One Piece of Effective Estate Planning
A will is just one of the building blocks of a comprehensive estate plan. Certainly, a will is a powerful tool, but it does not address everything that needs to be resolved when someone dies.
Estate planning refers to the larger process of designating who will manage your responsibilities and handle your assets if you become incapacitated or pass away. It covers a host of legal, financial, and medical issues that impact a family.
The goals of estate planning are to:
- Inventory your property: including homes, land, vehicles, collectibles, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and retirement funds, and life insurance policies.
- Provide for your family’s needs: name a guardian for your children, record your wishes for their care, and confirm you have enough life insurance for your loved ones.
- Document your directives: assign individuals to act as your financial and medical powers of attorney, spell out your wishes for medical care if you are unable to communicate, set up a trust and name a trustee to manage your affairs if you become too ill to do so.
- Name your beneficiaries: making sure the right assets go to the right people, ensuring beneficiaries reflect your current marital status, and noting that beneficiaries may be different from asset to asset.
Whether you are just embarking on the estate planning process or updating your will and other documents, take confidence in knowing the steps you take now will protect your interests and your loved ones for years to come.
Plainfield Wills, Trusts, and Estate Lawyers at Herold Law, P.A., Offer Comprehensive Estate Planning Services to Protect You and Your Loved Ones
If you need a will or want to update an existing will, our experienced Plainfield wills, trusts, and estate lawyers at Herold Law, P.A., can help. We offer a wide range of estate planning legal services to give you peace of mind knowing your wishes will be carried out and your loved ones are protected. To schedule a free consultation, call 908-647-1022 or contact us online. From our offices in Warren, we serve clients throughout New Jersey.