For most people, writing a will isn’t a one-and-done event. Unless your will is drafted very near the end of your life, chances are good that changes over your lifetime will make it necessary to update your will and other estate planning documents. For example, one of your beneficiaries may predecease you, you may marry or end a marriage, or you may add children to your family. Sometimes, the change is triggered by a shift in relationships: perhaps the person you nominated as your personal representative moved to England and is no longer willing or able to serve, or you had a falling out with a key beneficiary.

Whatever the reason for the change, you must take the necessary steps to ensure that your changes represent a valid addendum to or replacement of your will. Using improper or incomplete methods for updating your will can negate the validity of your changes—and, perhaps, of your original will as well.

Valid Methods for Updating Your Will

New Jersey law specifically states that a will may be revised only by:

  • Execution of a new will
  • Execution of a codicil to the existing will
  • Another writing declaring the alteration

Whichever of these methods is employed, the new document is subject to the same procedures and technical requirements necessary to execute a valid will.

Generally, a codicil is used to make a relatively minor change to the will. One reason for appending codicils to a will was to make updating a will simpler and less expensive. The ability to quickly and easily change a provision in a digital file and generate a revised will has eliminated much of the incentive for employing codicils rather than executing an updated will. And, an updated master document is typically clearer and less likely to create confusion or possible contradiction than the use of serial codicils.

A will may also be revoked in one of two ways: through the execution of a new will that explicitly revokes the prior will, or by physically destroying the will.

Avoid these Common Mistakes in Updating Your Will

Although New Jersey law is clear on the steps required to modify a will, people attempt to update wills in a variety of ways.

One generally ineffective means of attempting to update a will is to mark up the existing will, adding or crossing out provisions. This approach is flawed for several reasons. First, the changes are typically not executed as required by law, rendering them ineffective. In fact, a person who attempts to update his or her own will by excising parts of the existing document may inadvertently invalidate the will. For example, tearing a section out of the will or blacking out a section could be interpreted as a revocation of the will.

Another flawed approach to updating a will involves typing up an addendum to the will and attaching it to the existing will or placing it in an envelope with the existing will, but not having the addendum properly executed and witnessed.

These and other self-help attempts at updating a will can have uncertain and unintended consequences, and the testator who undertakes this type of modification cannot rely on his or her wishes being effectively conveyed and acted upon.

Talk to an Estate Lawyer about Updating Your Will

When you’ve gone to the trouble of preparing a will to provide for your family and other loved ones after you pass away, you don’t want to gamble with its validity. The best source of information about how to effectively update your will is your estate planning attorney.

If circumstances have changed and you need to update your will, or you are uncertain as to whether or not your will requires and update, get professional guidance as soon as possible. An experienced estate lawyer can tell you whether your situation is best managed using a codicil or with a replacement will, and how to fulfill the associated requirements.