Is a codicil a better way to make changes to a will?

Changes to your will

My column last week was about changing a will that was prepared by a lawyer.

A reader asked about crossing out and writing in changes directly on the will itself. And there was a lament about having to pay a lawyer $275 every time a minor change was made.

I explained how crossing out and writing in changes directly on a will can be validly done, but said a cleaner way would be to modify an electronic version of the will, print it, re-date it and re-sign it with witnesses, as your new will.

Barb e-mailed after reading my columnand asked: “Over the years, I have done a codicil (basic form on line), when it is something fairly minor. Is this better than crossing out an original will or no different? Seems a bit cleaner to me.”

It hadn’t occurred to me there would be an easily accessible online form of codicil.

Barb pointed me to an American site you can find by searching “legaltemplates”, that says it offers over 140 legal forms, including a codicil. The pricing options include a free trial. Barb says she’s never had to pay anything.

Using online legal forms is dangerous, particularly when forms created for customers in the United States, because while many laws are similar, there can be significant differences.

Am I a hypocrite? In previous columns I provided links to online forms of power of attorney and representation agreement provided by the government of British Columbia. But those forms are provided by a reliable source and come with excellent information about completing them and how they work.

Even those forms have limitations, though, and if you go back to find those previous columns you will see I always recommend consulting a lawyer.

How about I just walk you through how to make a codicil. There is nothing complicated about it.

First, what is a codicil? “Codicil” is a legal name for a document that modifies your will. There is nothing magical about the title. The word isn’t important. Call it “changes to my will” if you wish.

To avoid any uncertainty, it’s helpful to specifically refer to the will you are changing. How about this: “I am changing my will dated October 15, 2023”?

Then comes the important part—setting out the changes. That can be tricky. No form document can create that part for you because every will is different. It’s critical to be crystal clear about what part of your will is being changed and exactly what that change is.

As an example, the change of executor might be: “Instead of my spouse, Shirley Knowall, I appoint my sister, Elsie Smart, as my executor.”

An increased gift might be: “I increase the amount of my gift to the Canadian Cancer Society in paragraph 8(a) from $2,000 to $5,000”.

Those are easy changes. Others can be quite complicated. Unless you have experience with legal drafting, it can be difficult to describe exactly how a particular provision in a will is being changed. Your drafting might be clear to you, because you know what you want to accomplish. It’s quite a different thing to look at the documentation with fresh eyes.

It can be far easier to make a change in the will itself than to describe the change in a separate document.

To be valid, a separate changes-to-my-will document must be signed and witnessed in the same way a will must be signed and witnessed. And it should be dated.

Now for some cautions.

If your description of the change is not crystal clear, you will create what might be a very expensive problem for your executor to sort out and your wishes might not be followed.

Ensure you keep the document with your will. There is no “will fairy” who will alert your executor that you created the document. If they can’t find it, the changes will have no affect.

Please read my last column with the caution that the need to make one change to your will might be an indication your entire estate plan should be reviewed.

An optimum estate plan depends on your circumstances and tax laws, both of which change over time.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Lawyer Paul Hergott began writing as a columnist in January 2007. 

Achieving Justice, based on Paul’s personal injury practice at the time, focused on injury claims and road safety.  It was published weekly for 13½ years until July 2020, when his busy legal practice no longer left time for writing.

Paul was able to pick up writing again in January 2024. After transitioning his practice to estate administration and management.

Paul’s intention is to write primarily about end of life and estate related matters, but he is very easily distracted by other topics.

You are encouraged to contact Paul directly at [email protected] with legal questions and issues you would like him to write about.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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