How to Change a Will in California

Your last will and testament is only your last will and testament so long as you do not make a new one. And there is really nothing standing in your way to making a new one. But what if you only want to change one line? Make one small amendment? Take one beneficiary out? Add in a new beneficiary?

What if you do not need to make a sweeping change that would necessitate an entirely fresh will, drafted up nearly from scratch? Wills can be changed and amended in California. And depending on the change you want to make, it might be in your best interest to consider a codicil rather than a fresh will.

Change a Will in California Through a Codicil

A codicil is a document created as an amendment to a will. A codicil requires specific writing, as it must pertain to the exact provision in your will that you wish to amend. Like other estate planning documents, a codicil must also be witnessed and signed. You should not let your witness be someone who benefits from the codicil, i.e., if you are creating a codicil to add your son-in-law as beneficiary in your will, do not have him sign as witness to it.

Doing so may invalidate the codicil in probate court, should someone argue that it was not created in your best interest. Simple changes can be amended through a codicil without the help of an attorney, in theory. If you only plan to change one little detail, you can draft up a codicil specifying the location of the provision being amended in the original document, and an exact wording of the change you wish to implement.

You must use the same header as you used in your original will, as well as a sentence that references the will by name and date. Date your codicil as well. This is very important. However, it is still a good idea to have an attorney look over your codicil before you try to sign off on it. Otherwise, you may be throwing a lot of good work out the window if a clerical error or simple mistake renders it invalid in the future.

Once your codicil is created, put the original signed document in the same folder or location as your original will. Keep a copy, for your own records. The more you plan the change, the harder it will be to make these changes through a simple amendment. At some point, you should ask your attorney or estate planning professional about the pros and cons of making an amendment versus writing a new will.

Making Your Own Will in California

If your changes become more ambitious, or if you find yourself amending your will multiple times over the years, it may be time to simply draft a new will – especially if you have dedicated multiple codices to your first one. These codices each exist as a separate document, and each of them can be destroyed or lost, erasing your amendment.

At a certain point, you will want to consider the advantage of consolidating your changes into a brand new will instead. There is functionally no difference in the procedures between creating your first and second will. Your second (or third, fourth, …) will is distinguished as your last will and testament based on when it was dated. The latest will is the only valid will.

Any will older than your newest will becomes invalid. As with your previous will, it is a good idea to have an attorney look over any changes you have made. You can write up a new will based on your first one, but depending on the changes you wish to make, your attorney might need to rewrite certain portions.

If you do not have enough time to create an entirely valid will before you die, then it should be noted that you can create a handwritten will in California. Also known as a holographic will, these wills are uniquely valid without witnesses provided they are created entirely by your hand. Holographic wills may not be the preferred will making method, but they serve their purpose, especially if you cannot arrange anything else on short notice.

How Often Should You Change Your Will?

There is no arbitrary date for amending or recreating a will. Wills do not have an expiration date, either. However, it is recommended that you review your will every few years, alongside any other estate planning documents. Life is a rollercoaster and circumstances change. Relationships grow and fall. People come together and get torn apart. A few life-changing events that affect our priorities and interests may include:

  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Birth
  • Death

Most attorneys and estate planning professionals recommend reviewing an estate plan either every few years, or every time a major life event changes your perspective.

Creating a Comprehensive Estate Plan in California

Estate planning is about more than just will writing. If you have not already, you might want to consider talking to your loved ones about setting up a financial durable power of attorney and a healthcare durable power of attorney to ensure that the right people are left in charge of your medical care and financial obligations if you are incapacitated, but alive.

Furthermore, an advance directive or living will can be used to single out procedures that you wish to consent to, or call a veto against, should you be incommunicable. If estate taxes or probate concerns you, then diverging some of your assets and wealth into living trusts can help reduce the total value of your estate being distributed via will. An irrevocable living trust can even offer a degree of asset protection against creditors and reduce your state and federal estate taxes (at a loss of control over any assets in the trust). Estate planning, when done comprehensively, goes beyond the bequeathment of your earthly possessions. It can change the financial and personal legacy you leave behind.


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