You can change, add to or even revoke your will any time before your death as long as you are physically and mentally competent to make the change. An amendment to a will is called a codicil. (It sounds like a prescription medicine, and you might think of it as a cure for an obsolete will.) You can’t simply cross out old provisions in your will and scribble in new ones if you want the changes to be effective; you have to formally execute a codicil, using the same formalities as when executing the will itself. Of course, it’s vital that such codicils be dated so the court can tell whether they were made after your will. The codicil should be kept with the will. As the same mental ability and freedom from undue influence is required for a codicil as for a will, if the changes are substantial, it may be advisable to write a new will. It’s a good idea to check with your lawyer before revising or revoking your will.

You also have to watch out for ademption, which is what happens if you will something (say, your antique automobile) to someone, but by the time you die, you no longer own that auto. In this case, the gift would fail completely; the beneficiary wouldn’t be entitled to another vehicle. (A good will avoids this by using language like, "I give my antique Rolls Royce, to my son-in-law, Joe, but if I don’t own it, at the time of my death, I give him or her a choice of any automobile I do own at the time of my death.")

Sidebar:   Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan? A Checklist

Ask yourself if any of these changes have occurred in your life since you executed your will or trust.

  • Have you married or been divorced?
  • Have relatives or other beneficiaries or the executor died or has your relationship with them changed substantially and no provision is made in your will or trust for this contingency?
  • Has the mental or physical condition of any of your relatives or other beneficiaries or of your executor changed substantially?
  • Have you had more children or grandchildren, or have children gone to college or moved out of, or into, your home?
  • Have you moved to another state?
  • Have you bought, sold, or mortgaged a business or real estate?
  • Have you acquired major assets (car, home bank account)?
  • Have your business or financial circumstances changed significantly (estate size, pension, salary, ownership)?
  • Has your state law (or have federal tax laws) changed in a way that might affect your tax and estate planning?

If you do update your estate plan, you should also update your final instruction and will with the addresses and phone numbers of beneficiaries, trustees, executors and others mentioned in estate planning documents. It will make settling the estate much easier