Amending Your Will–Caution: Do Not Try This At Home

OK — you’ve signed your will and paid the big lawyer’s fee. Now you want to make a change. Do you know how to modify your will? Can you do it without incurring another fee? Shouldn’t it be easy to make the change?

All that might have been going through Donald Wolf’s mind when he made changes back in 2005. You see, he had written a clearly valid will in 1995. In it, he left half of his estate to a married couple who had been long-time friends. A quarter of his estate was to go to another friend, and the final quarter to a fund to assist AIDS patients. He named the wife of the married couple as his personal representative. Then he gave an unsigned copy of the will to the woman named as personal representative.

In 2005, when he was thinking about making a change, Mr. Wolf talked with the couple to whom he was leaving half of his estate. Then he took THEIR copy of his will, crossed out the bequest for AIDS patients and wrote that instead that quarter of his estate would be divided between two other friends. He dated and initialed the changes, but no one signed as witnesses. At some point — perhaps during that same meeting, but his friends could not clearly recall — he did the same thing on the signed original will, as well.

Was Mr. Wolf’s will amendment effective? We’ll give you a minute to think about it, and try to decide what you think. Wait — we’ll give you one more clue: the probate court decided that the attempt to amend his will was ineffective, and ordered that the AIDS fund was still a one-quarter beneficiary.

One of the two friends named in the hand-written amendment appealed the probate court’s decision, and the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the finding. Arizona permits “holographic” wills and amendments; if the material provisions of a will are in the decedent’s handwriting, they do not need to be witnessed. The appellate court decided that Mr. Wolf’s amendment was a holograph, and that it should be given effect. Estate of Wolf, February 7, 2012.

Back to our original questions: assuming you want to change your will, does the Wolf case stand for the proposition that it is as easy as taking your original will out, scribbling the changes, initialing and dating (which Mr. Wolf did) and putting it back away? Emphatically, NO. Here are some reasons why you should NOT use Mr. Wolf’s method for changing your will:

  1. You might live in, or move to, a state where holographic wills are not permitted. Not every state in the U.S. allows holographic wills and codicils, and they are disfavored in other jurisdictions — even in English-speaking countries, where the idea was once embedded in English law. Even where they are permitted the rules vary. It is never a good idea to rely on a holographic will, codicil or amendment.
  2. Even if the handwritten notes are admitted as part of the will, the intent and meaning is usually subject to interpretation and confusion. Is it possible that Mr. Wolf was making notes about possible changes that he meant to discuss with his lawyer — but never got around to completing? Apparently not, but very slight differences in testimony can lead to significant differences in result.
  3. Holographic documents are much more likely to result in litigation — and in delay and additional cost.
  4. The cost of making changes in your will is usually surprising slight. Go ahead — ask the lawyer who prepared your will how much he or she will charge for making changes. You are likely to be surprised at the answer. Why would it be inexpensive? Because a significant part of the cost of preparing your estate plan comes from the time it takes to understand your assets, family situation, goals and intentions. Much of that has already been done, and so amending your will is likely to cost quite a bit less than the original cost of preparing the will. That is true even though most lawyers would rather simply write a new will than prepare an amendment or codicil.
  5. There is a side benefit to meeting with your lawyer to amend your will. Laws change, your situation changes, the world changes — and your lawyer can point out things you ought to be thinking about in addition to the changes you want to make. In fact, you should be visiting with your lawyer once every five years or so — more if your situation is more fluid, or your assets are significant — just to see if you need to update documents.
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