Experience teaches us that the only constant in life is change. But we don't always keep up with the important details - such as updating wills and other important legal documents - that should accompany big changes in our lives. Your will should always be tailored to your current life situation, not the one you faced five years ago, or maybe even just last year.

Here are some events that should nudge you toward making a new will:

  • You change your mind about who you want to inherit a significant portion of your property.
  • You get married. In most states, your spouse is legally entitled to claim a fixed percentage of your property after you die, unless you have a written agreement to the contrary. Depending on where you live, the amount may be as much as half of what you own. If you don't plan to change your will to leave at least half of your property to your spouse, see a lawyer.
  • You are unmarried, but have a new partner. Without a will or alternate estate plan, such as a living trust, your partner will inherit nothing. To avoid this, you and your partner will probably want to make new wills right away.
  • You get divorced. In several states, a final judgment of divorce (or an annulment) has no effect on any gift made by your will to your former spouse. In others, it revokes such a gift. And in still a few others, divorce revokes the entire will. No matter what state you live in, you should make a new will after a divorce.
  • You have a new baby. You'll want to name a personal guardian for your new little one. This is the person you want to raise your child in the unlikely event that neither you nor the other parent is available.
  • You have new stepchildren. Unless you legally adopt stepchildren, they have no right to inherit from you. If you want to leave them a share of your property, you'll need to make a new will.
  • You acquire or dispose of substantial assets, such as a home. If you leave all your property in a lump to one or more people or organizations, there is no need to change your will as your property increases or decreases. But if you've made specific gifts of property that you no longer own, you'll want to change your will to avoid leaving the intended beneficiaries out in the cold. (If you no longer own the property, the beneficiaries are out of luck; they don't get anything in lieu of it.) Likewise, if you obtain new property and you want to leave it to someone specific, you'll need to change your will to make your wishes clear.
  • You're married and move from a community property state to a common law property state, or vice versa. Community property and common law property states view the ownership of property by married couples somewhat differently. This means that what both you and your spouse own may change if you move from one type of state to the other. Of course, if you plan to leave all or the bulk of your property to your spouse, its official ownership status isn't important, and it's not necessary to change your will.
Community Property States
New Mexico
*If you make a written community property agreement

Two Ways to Update Your Will

One way to update a will is to add a " codicil" to it. A codicil is a sort of legal " P.S." to the will, revoking part of it or adding a provision, such as a new gift of an item of property. Simple codicils made sense in the era of typewriters, when creating a brand-new will would have been a hassle, but today they are normally a poor idea. Codicils can create confusion - sometimes even conflict - and they must be typed, dated, signed and witnessed just like a will. It's probably just as easy to make a new will.

When you make your new will, be sure to properly revoke your old one. You can do this in your new will, just by including a simple statement like this: " I revoke all wills and codicils that I have previously made." In addition, you can avoid confusion by gathering together all copies of your old will and destroying them.

Finally, remember to review your new will periodically to see if there are any changes you want to make. Once a year would not be too often.

Copyright 1999 Nolo.com Inc.