Is My Will Void If I Get Divorced?

If you neglect to update your estate plan after a divorce, everything you gave to your ex in your original will could very well add up to a nice post-divorce inheritance. Even in the most amicable divorces, it’s probably not what you had intended. Yet, as reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, people do this.

Depending on where you live, there might be a law that automatically revokes gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. In Florida, there is a statute addressing this. In Texas, a law revokes gifts to the former spouse and their relatives. However, unless you know the laws of your state as well as an estate planning attorney, it’s best to let the estate planning attorney protect your estate.

What happens if you die before you are legally divorced?

If your will leaves everything to your surviving spouse and you are currently in the process of separating and divorcing, it’s time for a new will, as soon as possible.

Don’t forget assets passing outside of the will. Assets with beneficiary designations, like life insurance, investment accounts and some retirement plans, go directly to the beneficiary listed on the account. If the beneficiary is your ex, you should also make those changes as soon as possible.

Your estate plan must also update any property gained or lost during the divorce. If any assets are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them.

The executor (the person named in your will to oversee the distribution of assets) probably has to be changed as well. If you had previously named your ex-spouse, it’s time to name a new executor.

Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. If you have children with your ex, you will want to appoint a guardian in case both you and your ex are not alive to raise them. If you die unexpectedly, your spouse will raise them, but you should still name a guardian. If a surviving parent has a serious problem, like addiction, child abuse or incarceration, naming a guardian in your will and documenting the reasons you believe your ex is an unfit parent may be a deciding factor in how a judge awards custody.

A will can be updated by writing a codicil, which is an amendment to a previous or a prior will. However, since there may be many changes to a will in a divorce, it is better to tear up the old one—literally—and start over. A prior will is revoked by physically tearing up and destroying the original and including language in the new will that it will revokes all prior wills. Your attorney will know how to do this properly.

Your ex may have the legal right to challenge your will. This is why an estate planning attorney is so necessary to create a new will. There are provisions in some states that may give your ex more rights than in other states. In a divorce situation, the use of an experienced estate planning attorney can make the difference in your ex receiving a windfall and your new spouse or children receiving their rightful inheritance.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

Can an Executor be Replaced?

The executor of a last will and testament is the person responsible for carrying out the instructions in a will. Giving a person this role is giving them the authority to handle many tasks concerning an estate, as explained in the article “How to Change the Executor of a Will” from KAKE.com. The person you name can be anyone you wish, from a spouse to a trusted family member, an adult child or even an estate planning attorney. Minor children may not serve as executors and some states do not permit convicted felons from serving as executors.

What does the executor do?

A beneficiary, a person who receives an inheritance from the estate, is permitted to serve as an executor, but the executor who is a beneficiary may not witness the will if they have a direct interest in it. The executor usually is in charge of:

  • Getting death certificates
  • Creating an inventory of the decedent’s assets, unless one exists already
  • Contacting an attorney to begin the probate process
  • Notifying financial institutions, including banks and investment firms of the person’s death
  • Obtaining a tax ID number for the estate and opening an estate account
  • Distributing assets to the persons named in the will.

The executor may not change the terms of the will, only carry out the instructions. They may collect a fee for their services, usually a percentage of the estate’s value. Regardless, whether they collect their fee is an individual decision.

Can you change the name of the executor on your estate?

There are many reasons why you might wish to change the person you originally named as executor to your estate. This is an important task, and if there have been changes in your life, then your estate plan and will should reflect those changes. Some of the reasons for changing your executor:

  • If the original executor dies, or becomes seriously ill and cannot fulfill their duties
  • If your spouse was the executor, but is now your ex-spouse
  • The person originally named as executor does not want the responsibility
  • Your original executor now lives many miles away.

There are two different ways to change the executor of your will. It is recommended that you discuss which of these two ways are better for your unique situation. Simple solutions often turn into estate planning nightmares.

How is a Codicil Used to Change the Executor?

A codicil is an amendment to a will that changes the terms, without changing the entire will. You specify the changes you want to make to your will, the name of the person who you now want to serve as executor from now on and the date the change needs to take effect. Estate laws are different in every state, so check with your estate planning attorney on the best way to do this. In some states, you’ll need at least two witnesses to be present when you sign and date the codicil. Remember that beneficiaries may not witness the codicil. Be careful to keep your will and the codicil in a safe place.

Why Change the Entire Will to Change Only the Executor’s Name?

The reasons for your changing your executor’s name may have occurred in combination with other changes in your life that warrant a review of your entire estate plan. This should be done every three or four years, or every time there are big life changes or big changes to tax laws. If you don’t review your estate plan, you can miss out on new opportunities to protect more of your estate for your family.

What If I Don’t Name an Executor?

Not having an executor is similar to not having a will. If you do not have either, the court will assign an executor to be in charge of distributing your estate, according to the laws of your state. You may not like how the law distributes your assets, but you will have given up any control. It’s much better for all concerned for you to have a will and make certain to have an executor.

Reference: KAKE.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How to Change the Executor of a Will”

What Is a Will Codicil?

There are a number of reasons for adding a codicil to an existing will. KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “Using a Codicil to Modify a Will” says it’s good to know when you might need one and how to add it.

A codicil is a way to change the terms of an existing will. A codicil allows you to modify a term in your will, without the need to rewrite the whole will. A codicil is used in cases where you only need to make relatively minor changes.

There are different situations that might require a codicil to be added to your will. Here are some examples:

  • You want to add or remove an heir
  • You’ve acquired or disposed of property you need to update in your will
  • You need to change the executor of your will
  • You want to change the person designated as a legal guardian for your minor children
  • You recently were married or divorced and need to change how your assets or property will be distributed; or
  • You want to make changes to how your assets and property will be divided for other reasons.

Adding a codicil to a will make certain that the will is current, as you go through different life events or if your financial circumstances change. This can help eliminate the chance that your will may be challenged after you die, because those named as beneficiaries disagree with the will’s terms. It can also help to avoid lengthy delays in probate associated with property you no longer own or property you haven’t addressed in the will.

Remember that a codicil allows you to change your will. However, revoking a will terminates it completely. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the laws for revoking a will in your state. Some states let you simply physically destroy the will, and in others, you may need to draft a written declaration stating that your will has been revoked or draft a new replacement.

If you need to make substantial changes to the terms of your will, then revoking it and creating a new will may be the better plan. A new will in place can avoid confusion during probate, if there are conflicting terms. You may also need to write a new will, if all copies of your existing will are unintentionally lost or destroyed.

Drafting a codicil to a will, is like writing a will itself. The codicil needs to follow the legal guidelines established in your state. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference: KAKE.com (June 17, 2020) “Using a Codicil to Modify a Will”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”