How often and why should you review your will?

Topics covered:

  • A properly drafted will might not require changing to accommodate births and deaths
  • List of events that could require the review of your will
  • Suggestion to review your will on your own annually and with an estate tax advisor and lawyer every 3-5 years or urgently if your death becomes imminent

How often should a will be reviewed?

The results of a web search of law firm and financial advice pages: “Every few years at least”; “At least once every three to five years”; “Every four years”.

Many web pages give lists of life events that should trigger a will review.

Brace yourself: You have or adopt a child; your child turns 19; you become a grandparent; changes in your marital status; you think about changing your marital status; changes in a beneficiary’s marital status; an executor or beneficiary dies; a beneficiary develops creditor or substance abuse problems; you acquire assets; you lose assets; you start a business; there’s a critical medical diagnosis; before taking a trip; when laws change; you move.

The wind blows east.

That’s a lot of reviewing!

Is it really necessary?

Let me ask you this: How often have you reviewed your will?

I confess that I haven’t looked at mine since I drafted it many years ago.

And heck – the other day I was consulted by a 66-year-old who has never even had a will to review!

She sounded apologetic. I reassured her that she’s saved herself a bunch of money!

I shouldn’t be so flippant.

Your will becomes really, really important once you die.

But not having died yet, and death not being predictably immanent, all this hullabaloo about making and reviewing wills can seem a bit much.

The most efficient time to make a will is just before you die, armed with your full cognitive capacity.

Unfortunately, the loss of cognitive capacity and the timing of your death cannot be reliably predicted.

So we prudently make a will assuming that we might die tomorrow. Because that’s possible. Highly unlikely, but possible.

When lawyers draft wills, we gaze into the crystal ball to consider the more likely and predictable life changes that might occur in your future. And we put clauses in your will to make it versatile enough that it will continue to express your wishes after those life changes occur.

If a young, married father of a child knew he would die tomorrow, his will could name only his spouse as his beneficiary.

But if he was a healthy fellow, a lawyer gazing into the crystal ball would reasonably predict the possibility that his spouse might die before he does and put in a clause that if the spouse dies first, then his estate goes to his child.

Anticipating that the young family might grow, the lawyer would not specifically name the child as the alternate beneficiary but would rather refer to his “children” as alternate beneficiaries.

Very unlikely that both the father and his spouse would die before the children are well into their 40s and 50s, but it’s possible. So lawyers would tend to include clauses that would require the children’s inheritance to be held in trust until they reach some reasonable age.

We’re going pretty far down the rabbit hole here, but it’s certainly possible that one of the children might die before their parents, and that their death occurs after they’ve had their own children. Lawyers often include clauses that would have that deceased child’s share go to those children.

With those standard clauses in the young father’s will, it might be that births and deaths within the immediate family would not require any changes to the will over the young father’s lifetime.

But there are many other future events that cannot be accommodated by standard clauses.

You name what had been a trusted son-in-law as your executor but fail to change that after his horrifically acrimonious separation from your child.

You separate from your spouse and enter into a new relationship, developing closer relationships with your stepchildren than the children you’ve left your estate to in your will.

You leave one child your Big White condo and the other child an equivalent amount of money, but the condo triples in value and the capital gains tax is paid out of your estate leaving the other child with nothing.

Your imagination is the only limit to circumstances when you would want to change your will if you put your mind to it.

If you put your mind to it every five years, you might die between the changed circumstances and your five-year review.

If you put your mind to it every time the wind blows east, you’ll be fixated on your death! And if the reviews are with a lawyer you will be spending a lot of money.

It feels reasonable to me that there’s value in taking stock of where we’re at in our lives on an annual basis. That would be a good time to dust off your will while considering changes in your life over the past year.

Many significant changes, like births and deaths that clauses in your will have accommodated, will not require any changes to your will.

Some, like booting your son-in-law off as your executor can be done on your own with a codicil without spending any legal dollars. Others will jump out at you as obviously requiring a lawyer-assisted change.

But there might also be subtle changes, like the gradual tripling of value of your Big White condo, that wouldn’t occur to you as being worthy of a will review. It’s changes like those that make it prudent to sit down with your estate tax advisor and lawyer on a periodic basis.

Every 3-5 years sounds reasonable to me, but also on an urgent basis if your health declines in a way that your death becomes more imminent.

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