Apr 08, 2009

You Never Retire from Writing Your Will

A century ago it was common for people to write their will in their forties and die before they were 60 with the same will in place. People who lived longer might add a codocil (a kind of legal P.S.) to reflect changed circumstances, but it was relatively uncommon for the average person to make multiple wills.

Today, just about everything concerning making a will is different. Many of us will live up to 50 years after we make our first will, meaning that all sorts of important life events that occur in the interim will all but require changes. And codocils, which saved 19th- and 20th-century lawyers from having to retype and reproof wills, are as dead as the typewriters that created them.

The result is that today when you need to modify your will, you'll do one of the following:
  • go to a lawyer who will feed your info into a computer and print out a nice new one for you to sign in front of witnesses, usually charging between $300-$1,000 for their services
  • adopt a self-help approach by using software such as Quicken WillMaker, or
  • go online and use one of several reliable online wills at a cost of about $70. Since this is a Nolo blog you'll probably guess that I think that Nolo's Online Will is the most legally comprehensive and easiest to use -- but hey, you don't have to take my word for it.
OK, assuming you agree that 50 years is a long time to live with one will, what are the key events that indicate you need to make a new one pronto?

  • Property values have changed. If the dollar value of the property you've left to different beneficiaries has changed substantially and unequally, you almost surely need to write a new will right away. For example, if two years ago you left your house (then worth $500,000) to your daughter and your bank C.D.s (also worth $500,000) to your son, changes are, given the real estate meltdown, your son now stands to get far more than your daughter. And given the fact that the stock market has fallen almost as dramatically, it follows that millions of Americans who left securities in their wills face this same need to promptly re-balance their bequests.
  • Someone you have left property to has died. Even if you named an alternate to the deceased person, it's wise to update your will so that a live person inherits initially and you have the opportunity name a new alternate.
  • A child, grandchild or someone else you wish to include has been born since making your last will. It's particularly important that you update your will when a child is born, since failing to do this can mean that the newborn gets statutory inheritance rights you may not intend. And you'll also want to name a personal guardian for your new child should something happen to you or your spouse or partner.
  • You sold a house or other valuable property identified in the will, or bought property not covered by it. For example, if you left your house at 111 Maple Street to your son, but sold it and now reside in a condo at 222 Oak Street, it's obvious you need to change your will immediately (assuming, of course, you still like your son).
  • Because of the economic meltdown, you have spent money or sold property covered by your will. The danger here, of course, is that any beneficiaries you designated to receive the now-diminished or newly non-existent property will be left little or nothing -- while someone else may receive a relative windfall.
  • You have separated from your spouse and/or gotten a divorce. If you are still married to a person named as a beneficiary, in most states the fact that you are in the process of divorce won't change his or her inheritance rights if you don't change your will. And in some states, even a final divorce won't affect a bequest left to a former spouse. Again, you need to write a new will and name someone else to receive the property.
  • You have begun living with someone since you wrote your last will. New spouses not mentioned in an old will almost always have some right to inherit under state law, although probably not exactly what you would provide, so this is definitely a time to write a new will. But an unmarried partner has no inheritance rights unless you say so in your will or trust. So don't procrastinate or the result will be that if you die suddenly, your loved one may literally be out in the cold.