AUGUST 8, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 29
Last March we told you a good story about revocation of a living trust, though we cautioned you not to use the same method. A year before that we told you about another colorful character and how he revoked his will. Both of those court cases made us scratch our heads about the behavior of the individuals, but it occurs to us that we might never have told you what you should do to revoke your will or trust. Let us take care of that oversight now.
Please remember that we only practice law in Arizona. What works here might not work, or might not work exactly the same way, elsewhere. Your best bet is always to talk with a competent local attorney about how (and whether) to revoke a will or trust — or, for that matter, a power of attorney or other planning document you might have signed. With that caveat, here are some thoughts on how it might be done:
Revoking a will
The usual way to revoke a will is to sign a new one. It is very uncommon for an individual to want or need to revoke a will without making new arrangements for disposition of his or her property. Somewhere in your will — probably in the first paragraph or two — there is probably language that says something like “I hereby revoke all other prior wills I have signed.” That’s all it takes.
It is also possible to revoke a will by physically destroying the original document. Actually, Arizona law says you can do this by committing a “revocatory act” on the document. That can include burning, tearing, or other physical acts of destruction on the will or on a part of it. There are two keys here: you must intend to destroy the will, and you must do it yourself (though it is permitted to instruct someone else to do it in your presence). It is not an effective approach to call up your brother on the telephone, ask him to go down to the basement where the will is located, tear it up and report back to you — it must be done in your “conscious presence.”
Another way to revoke your will is more subtle: you can misplace it. If after your death no one can find your original will, and it is apparent that it was once in your possession, the law presumes that you must have destroyed it. That is only a presumption — we might be able to overcome it by showing, for instance, that you told everyone your will was completed and in a safe place shortly before your death. Obviously, a better choice is to keep track of your original will, and tell your heirs and family where to find it.
Another way to “revoke” your will: get married, or divorced, or have children. Actually, these life changes do not really revoke your will under Arizona law, but they can effectively rewrite your will — and in some circumstances can change your entire estate plan. There is a presumption in either case that you just didn’t get around to making appropriate changes in your will. Once again, you can overcome that presumption by taking appropriate action. There is a high likelihood that the law’s presumption will not be accurate as applied in your facts, so after marriage, divorce or birth of a child you should get together with a lawyer to make sure your estate plan is in order.
Revoking a trust
When a client asks about revoking a revocable living trust, our first question is not about “how” but “why.” There are very few disadvantages to having a revocable living trust — the two primary problems are the cost of setting one up and the difficulty of transferring assets to the trust. If you have already incurred both the cost and the difficulty of funding, it probably does not make sense to revoke the trust. Instead, let us talk with you about revising the trust to remove whatever provisions trouble you. Is it just that you don’t want your former girlfriend’s name to appear in the document? OK — we can probably “restate” the trust, which will involve replacing the entire trust document with a new one without the offending name.
For whatever reason, perhaps you just want to revoke your revocable living trust. After all, “revocable” is in the name, right? How do you do it?
First, you look at the trust document. Does it tell you how to revoke it? Perhaps it requires a written revocation, and maybe even it calls for the signature of the trustee (these are common but not universal requirements). If the trust tells you how to do it, follow the trust’s instructions.
Is it enough to tear up the trust? No, not under Arizona law. How about misplacing the trust document? No, a missing trust does not create a presumption of revocation in the way that a missing will would do.
How about getting married or divorced, or having children? This one involves a little more nuance. Your trust might take care of the children part — a well-drafted trust will usually make provision for the later birth (or death) of a child, or even a grandchild. Sometimes that provision is by one of the legal shorthand terms “by right of representation,” “per stirpes” or even “per capita.”
Marriage may not be covered in the trust document or Arizona’s default law. Divorce is covered by the same default statute as we described above for wills — but with the added wrinkle that if your trust is a joint trust between you and your spouse, it is a little harder to figure out what happens in individual circumstances. The message here: if you have any of these big life changes (marriage, divorce, birth or death of a child or other beneficiary) get in to your lawyer’s office as quickly as you can to make the appropriate changes to your revocable living trust.
Powers of attorney
How do you revoke your power of attorney? If you have never shared the document with the named agent or anyone else, you can revoke it by simply tearing it up and throwing it away. If you have shared it, you should write a separate letter to everyone who has seen it indicating that you are revoking the power. Make sure any new power of attorney you sign deals with the older one(s): it may not be enough to just rely on the most recent document, since they don’t automatically revoke older powers of attorney in the same way that wills do.
Keeping track of power of attorney documents and formally revoking older ones is important for another reason. Unlike trusts and wills, revoked powers of attorney are still valid to the extent that your agent acts without knowledge of the revocation. Save everyone a lot of heartache, expense and confusion by having an attorney prepare your new powers of attorney and properly revoke older versions.
One final note: you can see that the effect of having older, revoked documents around can be serious and can vary between the different types of documents. Help us keep your estate plan straight, and your life uncluttered. We know that you paid good money for those old documents, and that it is hard to throw them away. Just do it. If we prepare your new estate plan, we will offer to help you revoke and destroy the old documents (and all those drafts and copies we lawyers sent you), and we’ll volunteer our shredder to make it discreet and effective.