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Is there a limit to how many times I can update my will?

Davenport, IA |

We have a large family, and there have been a lot of changes recently. I've had to make four changes in the last year. Is there any kind of limit on how often I can change it?


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Attorney answers 3


There is no limit on the number of times you can change your will. I don't recommend it, but there are times when it's advantageous to do so.

When I was a young lawyer in my father's law firm, we had a client (now long gone) who had no close relatives. She had a substantial estate, and she had a fairly long list of people to whom she chose to leave various amounts. She was very concerned that the relatives she did have would attempt to contest and overturn her will when she died.

Periodically she would have disagreements with one or another of her chosen beneficiaries. She also would identify new objects of her bounty rather regularly.

What it all boiled down to was she was in the habit of making a new will, or an amendment to her will, called a "codicil" about once every three months, and I believe my father had a collection of these totaling about 20.

She died. Sure enough, relatives who felt they hadn't been adequately taken care of emerged, and instituted a will contest suggesting that she had been senile, or under the influence of medications which took away her ability to understand the true objects of her bounty, or that she had been under the improper or undue influence of people named in the will. There were several contestants, each with his or her own firm of lawyers, and all seeking the overthrow of the will.

My Dad called in the attorneys for all parties, and lined up the 20 wills on his desk. He gave a little talk about the average length of time a will contest might take to go through the courts, and perhaps the appeal process, also discussing the fact that a will is presumed to be valid, and how difficult it is to have one overturned. He then went on to remind all counsel, that if they were successful in overturning the latest will, under the law of Illinois that would revive the next previous will, and so on and so on. With 20 wills, and perhaps an average of 5 years for the contest of each, no one in the room had much of a chance of being alive when the contests were finally over.

The contestants understood, and rapidly lost interest. The latest will prevailed, and all attempts at a contest were withdrawn!

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There is no limit. Usually people ask how often I have to update my will.

A Will can be updated by preparing a codicil (a brief amendment) and signing it. Theoretically you could sign 1000 codicils. It would be silly to do so because it would be very difficult to administer your estate (and cost a lot more).

The other way would be to physically destroy your old will and replace it with a new one. This you can also do as many times as you want.

Typically you should update your will whenever you have a major life change or there is a major legal change. That means a change in law, a new child, a new marriage, etc. Attorneys tend to recommend every three years. Clients recommend every 10 years and we usually see 5-7 years on average.

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The other lawyers are right on with their answers. Generally, there is no limit to the number of times you can amend an estate plan. Four changes in a year is a lot, however. There is also something to the theory that if someone is constantly changing their estate plan, it might lead to a suggestion that they were confused or incapacitated in some way.

What I would ask you is what is the catalyst behind all of these changes? Deaths in the family are one thing. But if it is something else, I wonder if there is a way that your lawyer can "draft around" potential issues, so that you are not constantly having to change your estate plan. Lawyers are used to providing for many different contingencies and that helps to eliminate constant revisions.

Depending on your assets and your objectives, there may be other ways for you to structure things so that future changes are not required so often. I would ask your attorney, if you need to revised the documents again, in the near future.

You do not state it in your summary, but I assume you ARE using a lawyer to handle your estate planning. If you are not, then you should be. This may eliminate the need for such frequent updates.

James Frederick

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