NOVEMBER 18, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 44
So you have a will, and you want to make some changes. Can you just write in the new provisions? How about if you sign somewhere on the document?Can it be a copy of your will, or does it have to be on the original to be effective? Do you need witnesses?
The correct answer: don’t make changes that way. There are too many variables, too many interpretations, too many ways for those changes to just add cost to the probate of your estate while not effecting the result you intend. Talk to your lawyer, get changes made formally, and have a new will drawn up. Can it just be a codicil? Yes, but there is frankly almost no reason in this age of computerization to ever sign a codicil to your will — just sign a new will. One drafted by your lawyer.
Sometimes, though, time just gets away from you. If you want to make changes, you probably ought not wait until just before your 100th birthday. That’s probably the biggest mistake Jenny Travis (not her real name) made.
Ms. Travis had signed a will in 2002, and a codicil a few months later in 2003. In 2010 she had her caretaker call her lawyer, asking him to make a visit to review her estate plan.
The lawyer made a photocopy of Ms. Travis’ existing will and codicil, and went to her home to discuss them with her. During their meeting, he hand-wrote several changes in the margins of his copy of her existing will. As she described the changes, he scratched out two individuals’ names next to a bequest and wrote in two replacements. In another place he deleted a paragraph, and in another made modifications to the way a bequest would be handled. Another was changed from $10,000 to $42,000, again in the lawyer’s handwriting. Finally, the two charities who were scheduled to get the remainder of her estate in the 2010 will were crossed out and replaced with Ms. Travis’ brother.
At this point the lawyer had Ms. Travis sign her name by each of the changes, and he signed as a witness. Then he wrote a note to his secretary at the top: “Linda, do a codicil that changes” the affected sections of the 2002 will and 2003 codicil. He took the document back to his office with him, and a codicil was prepared. Unfortunately, though, Ms. Travis died six weeks after her lawyer’s visit, without ever having signed the new, formally prepared codicil.
Did those handwritten changes constitute a will or a codicil? Not according to the Pennsylvania probate office, which declined to admit the handwritten changes to probate (but did admit the 2002 will and 2003 codicil).
Ms. Travis’ lawyer appealed, and the Superior Court (the second-tier appellate court in Pennsylvania) viewed things differently. The appellate judges ruled that Ms. Travis’ changes might be a codicil to her will — and that the probate court should conduct a hearing to determine whether that was what she intended when she signed (and her lawyer witnessed) beside each change. One of the nine judges considering the case would have gone further — he would have ordered the handwritten notes admitted to probate without any further testimony. Still, it seems likely from the language of the opinion that the lawyer’s notes will ultimately be given effect — it will just have taken a trip to the appellate court and a delay of several years before the issue is resolved. In Re Estate of Tyler, November 13, 2013.
Assuming that Ms. Travis really did want to make the changes her lawyer wrote down, what might have been done differently to make sure her wishes were carried out? And would the same result be reached if Ms. Travis had lived and died in Arizona?
One obvious thing to consider would have been to make the changes earlier. By the time of her death Ms. Travis was 100 years old — if she had been thinking about making the changes for very long, she probably should have called her lawyer earlier. Perhaps, though, she had just recently made up her mind about the changes when she met with her lawyer.
Apparently Pennsylvania law permits changes to a will to be effective if written by someone else and signed by the person making the changes. It may not even have been necessary for her lawyer to sign as a witness (we don’t practice Pennsylvania law, so we might have gotten that wrong). The same is not true in Arizona — changes like those made by Ms. Travis’ lawyer would require her signature and two witnesses in Arizona. It’s not even completely clear that the changes would have been accepted then, since there does not seem to have been any indication in the written notes that the changes were intended to be a will or codicil, and they were made on a photocopy of her old will.
In Arizona it would have been better for the lawyer to write out a separate document describing what it was and the intended effect, and to have Ms. Travis sign it in front of two witnesses. Such a document would probably have been effective. Another alternative, since Arizona permits “holographic” wills, would have been for Ms. Travis to write out her changes in her own handwriting, and to sign that document (no witnesses would have been required) — though that creates plenty of opportunity for her to get the changes jumbled, or leave out portions or make mistakes. Presumably the lawyer, familiar with will drafting, would have had an easier time making the changes correctly.
Of course it would have been wonderful if the lawyer could have returned to Ms. Travis’ home with a beautifully typed new will (again, just forget codicils) the next day and had her sign in front of two witnesses. It is unclear why that did not happen — whether Ms. Travis was unable to discuss her wishes shortly after the initial visit, or the lawyer’s secretary Linda was out sick the next day, or what else might have intervened. The central lesson: if you want to make changes to your estate plan, get to it promptly, and talk with your lawyer right away.