Don’t Write On It!

Wills are often written once and forgotten for years. People seem to believe wills have a “shelf life”, after which they expire. It isn’t true. The last Will you wrote, even if it was 50 years ago, is still your Will and still governs your estate. It becomes awkward when this happens, since many of the personnel in that Will may have since died or moved out of your life. I encourage my clients to come in on a 3-5 year schedule to look over their documents for this very reason. One temptation people have with old Wills is to make handwritten changes to update them – especially where in their mind, the change is “simple”. We see this often, and unfortunately, such efforts can have complicated and catastrophic results.

The problem is that Washington law governing Wills requires that all Wills and modifications be done in a specific, rather formal way. The legal doctrine that applies holds that “material alterations” to a Will that are not properly made will render the Will VOID. It’s a terrible doctrine, but makes sense when you see it from the court’s perspective. They receive a marked up Will that may change how the estate originally was divided, or who serves as executor or in other important roles. These changes may be initialed, but the person who has died cannot come into court to explain his or her intentions. The short, legal answer is that the whole Will, or a substantial part of it, likely gets thrown out. What happens next is that an earlier Will may be “revived”, or the estate will be governed by the laws of intestacy – where someone dies without a Will. One thing is quite certain, the amended intentions of the deceased cannot be fulfilled.

The reason you consult with a lawyer is to make sure your intentions are carried into effect at your death. I have often heard clients complain about the cost of a “simple” change. Consider: it takes time for your lawyer to listen to you, to understand what you want to change in your Will, to read the document, to be sure there are no unintended consequences of that change, to redraft the paperwork, and to have you back in to review an sign. The lawyer has no way of knowing what is involved until time has been invested. You are counting on your lawyer to understand your wishes, and to interpret those into legal terms that will see your intentions are fully and properly implemented. This takes time. Sometimes, it takes more time than was needed to produce the original Will in the first place. But consider the far greater cost of ruining the paperwork you have. When I was a law student, I fancied myself a bit of a “backyard mechanic”. It was more “fancy” than fact. The outcome of many of my repairs only compounded the problem. More than once, I presented an embarrassing mess to a real mechanic, and had to pay more to undo my “fix” than if I’d gotten done right in the first place. Here, the stakes are far higher than with my old car. Your Will represents your legacy, your life’s work, your intentions for your loved ones and beloved charities. Don’t take a chance to save a few dollars on a do-it-yourself repair. Get the changes done reliably and correctly, and “Don’t Write On It!”

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