Your will may be the most important document you’ll ever write. Problem is, after many of us draft one, we put it somewhere for safekeeping and don’t look at it again. That can be a big mistake.
Lives change. Our finances change. Loved ones leave us and new family members join us. We relocate. And on and on. These types of occurrences — and a few others — often demand updating a will.
Here are eight life changes that should prompt people in their 50s and 60s to review their wills to ensure they’re still consistent with their current life situations and wishes:
1. You’ve moved. If you’ve moved to a different state since your will was written, it’s probably time to update the document. Your will is administered in your state of residence when you die and that state’s laws apply — not the laws of the state where the will was written.
It’s quite possible that some rules in your new state are different from your old one. For instance, states have varying laws regarding the number of witness signatures needed on a will to be able to transfer property upon your death. If you move from a state that only requires one witness to a state that requires two and haven’t updated your will, this will likely be problematic for your executor — the person you appoint to handle your estate.
States also differ regarding which types of wills are valid. Some allow self-written wills but have rules about how they must be written. In one state, a will you write yourself may have to be entirely in your own handwriting; in another, you could be able to type it and just sign at the bottom. (Sometimes, as in the case of Aretha Franklin’s reportedly handwritten wills, disputes over validity wind up in the courts.)
2. You’ve sold your home and bought another. If you own a different home than the one when you wrote your will, your will needs updating to reflect your proper address. Most wills don’t simply state that you give your home to your children. They say you give your home, located at such and such address, to your children.
3. You purged your possessions. Have you downsized since your will was written? If your will lists items you no longer own, those possessions will simply be skipped over. But listed recipients for them won’t get anything in their place. So, you may want to review your will to reconfigure how your current personal property will be distributed.
4. You made a gift to a child. If you downsized after writing your will and gave, say, your antique dining room table to one child, but the will says it will go to another child, things could become awkward between your kids when your will is administered. Similarly, things can be problematic if you made a gift to one child, but the amount isn’t balanced with what you’ll leave to another child in the will. Any gifts that could affect items or amounts listed in your will necessitate an update to your will.
5. Your charity relationships have changed. It could be that since writing your will, you’ve become a board member for a charity or now volunteer at a nonprofit that means a lot to you. You may want to leave money for them in your will, requiring an update for the document. Conversely, you may have had a strong affinity to a charity listed in your will but no longer feel that way. That means it’s time to fix the will, too.
6. Your financial situation or the value of your assets have changed. Maybe your will spells out exactly how much money you will give to each of your three children. But the size of your estate isn’t what it was when you wrote the will — it might have grown or shrunk. The dollar amounts noted could create challenges for your executor. If so, amend the will to reflect your current net worth.
Similarly, maybe you wrote the will designating a gift of stock to a certain person or organization upon your death. At the time, the stock wasn’t worth much. But now it is. This, too, might mean you’ll want to update your will to ensure your gift will be what you had in mind.
7. One child has become your primary caregiver. If a son or daughter has devoted a great deal of time (and maybe money) to taking care of you since you wrote the will, you may want to update your document to reflect your gratitude to your family caregiver. If you do, be sure to explain this to your children or leave details about your intentions in the will.
8. A beneficiary listed in your will has died. You won’t need to update your will just because your spouse died since you wrote it and your spouse was named as the recipient of your estate. Typically, wills also list alternate recipients in case spouses die first. Then, the alternate recipients inherit the estates. However, if your will listed leaving items to a child who has since died, you’ll need to provide instructions on how to distribute them.
Patrick O’Brien is the co-founder of Executor.org, a comprehensive online resource that helps executors manage their duties. Free tools on the site include a step-by-step interactive executor checklist to simplify the role.