Rumor v. Reality No. 3: I Don’t Need an Attorney to Edit My Will

Rumor: “To make changes to my original Will, I can mark it up by hand and initial it So, I don’t need my estate attorney’s help.”

Reality: “Handwritten changes on your original Will, or handwriting  your own Will, will most likely result in your  family having to go to probate court.”

A handwritten Will, or edits to an existing one, may be valid in some states. However, while New Jersey may allow handwritten Wills in certain circumstances that comply with the current law, a handwritten Will must be approved by a probate court judge — which can be costly and time consuming. This delays the estate’s administration process.

Handwritten changes to estate documents also leave the estate vulnerable to a Will contest. Will disputes are generally based on two claims: the first is that the testator (person who made the Will) was not of sound mind when he or she signed the Will and the second is that the testator was being unduly influenced by another.

When a Will is handwritten or edited by hand, it raises suspicions about why the testator made the changes or choices, whether it was actually the testator who made the changes and if they are legally sound decisions. Meanwhile, when an estate plan is created or updated by an estate planning attorney, it ensures that the documents meet the legal requirements and quells questions about the testator’s mental capacity and intent.

The Correct Steps to Take to Edit an Estate Plan

While it may be tempting to save time and money by writing or editing your own Will, doing so creates a burden for your heirs by forcing them to go to probate court. Instead of sharpening a pencil and getting to work changing your estate plan, take these steps instead:

  1. Make a separate list of all the reasons you want to change your estate plan. Have your beneficiaries or life circumstances changed? Do you have more or less assets to bequeath? Did the law change? This will give you an organized view of the reasons behind the changes and allow you to see how extensive they are. An estate planning attorney will ensure these changes are made correctly – and the process will be faster since you’ve provided a list of what needs to be updated.
  2. Ask yourself why you don’t want to return to your attorney. Is it a time or cost issue? Did you not like your attorney? There are many experienced estate planning attorneys to choose from and updating an estate plan costs less than you think — certainly less than it will cost your beneficiaries to sort out your wishes in court. Ask people you trust for referrals.Be sure to include a codicil when you make changes to your Will. A codicil is a formal legal document that can be added to the Will to reflect valid, legal changes to the estate plan.
  3. If the changes you want to make are extensive, it could be more efficient and cost-effective to start over. An attorney will let you know which is the best choice. A new Will should state that it revokes all previous Wills and codicils, and previous versions of these documents should be destroyed.

We have seen plenty of circumstances in our own clients where a handwritten Will or changes to one has created years of stressful, expensive court proceedings. Read about the case involving the cocktail napkin and another that used sticky notes to see how these ill-advised approaches to estate planning caused long-term trouble.

This is the third in our Rumor v. Reality estate planning series. Watch for additional, helpful estate planning information in the coming weeks! Also in this series:

Working with an experienced estate planning attorney is a much better option than making handwritten changes to your estate plane. The attorneys at Timothy Rice Elder and Estate Law can answer your questions and find a solution that’s right for you. Contact our office at 833-888-0462.

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