Estate Planning: Can I Change My Will Without an Attorney?

October 9, 2013
Updated on August 25, 2023
A fountain pen on top of paperwork with edits marked on it in red.

At some point you may want to update or change your will after you have created it. Rather than taking the will to an attorney, you may attempt to change the will yourself. Be aware that not all handwritten changes to a will may be valid, however.

Do I Need an Estate Planning Lawyer to Write a Will in the First Place?

Strictly speaking, you do not have to create your will with the assistance of an attorney. Yet if you choose this route, you could be making matters far more complicated for your loved ones.

It is important to remember that state law governs the creation and the revision of wills. Therefore, you should always check the laws of your particular state before making any changes to your will.

Depending on the laws of your state, handwritten notes you make in your will may qualify as a valid way of transferring assets to an heir upon your death. This is more likely to be the case if the changes are entirely in your handwriting, and are signed and dated. Conversely, a court in another state may find that the entire will is invalid based on the handwritten notes.

Holographic Wills

In some states, something known as a holographic will may be considered valid. This is a handwritten will that you may have put together yourself, without a witness. The biggest risk here, however, is that a holographic will is more likely to be contested following your death.

What Are the Dangers of Making Handwritten Changes to My Will?

Despite what the laws of your state say about handwritten changes in your will, such changes could still be challenged. If someone claims that handwritten notes within your will are invalid, defending your will in court may come at a hefty cost for your intended heirs. Court proceedings could deplete the funds in your estate. Not to mention it could take longer for your beneficiaries to receive their inheritance or any property you wished to pass on to them.

If you would like to modify your will, the proper venue to do this is through a codicil.

What Is a Codicil?

A codicil is a legal document that is added as a supplement to your will with the help of your attorney. With a codicil, you can make valid modifications or minor corrections to your estate plan without having to recreate a completely new will.

For instance, perhaps you previously named someone a beneficiary who has since passed away. Or, you may have moved to a new home in recent years and want to update your address on the document.

Typically, you must sign the codicil with the same formalities that are required for the will to ensure it is verifiable. In most jurisdictions, this involves the signature of at least one witness in addition to having the document notarized. (Note that you can also have multiple codicils to your will.)

You may want to avoid the headache of having your will consist of multiple legal documents. Fortunately, you always have the option of replacing your outdated will with a new, updated will.

Consult With an Estate Planning Attorney

Like most matters concerning estate planning, it is essential that you consult with an experienced attorney. They can assist you in making any necessary amendments to your will as your wishes and circumstances change. You can seek out their help in understanding the impact of your state law on the legal status of your plans. In addition, a professional can make sure your estate plan will work as you intend when it really counts.

Even if you do not have any changes in mind for your will, it is still a good idea to revisit your estate plan documents periodically. There might be updates you need to make that you had not foreseen, or the laws in your state could have undergone changes. Consider sitting down with your attorney at least every decade or so to keep your documents up to date.