How often should you review your will?

Reviewing your will

How often should a will be reviewed?

The results of a web search of law firm and financial advice pages gives a number of answers— “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 for the list:

• You have or adopt a child

• Your child turns 19 yers of age

• You become a grandparent

• A change 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

• When you move.

That’s a lot of reviewing. Is it really necessary?

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

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

The other day I was consulted by a 66-year-old who has never even had a will to review. She sounded apologetic. I assured her she’s saved herself a bunch of money.

I shouldn’t be so flippant. Your will does become very important once you die. But having not 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 we might die tomorrow, because that’s possible. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s 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. 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 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 the young family might grow, the lawyer would not specifically name the child as the alternate beneficiary but would refer to the children as alternate beneficiaries.

It is very unlikely 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 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 one of the children might die before their parents, and their death occurs after they’ve had their own children. Lawyers often include clauses that have the deceased child’s share go to his or her 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 during the young father’s lifetime.

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

You name 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 want to change your will.

If you put your mind to it every five years, you might die between the changed circumstances and your five-year review. If you review it every time the wind blows east, you’ll be fixated on your death. And if the reviews are done with with a lawyer, you will spend a lot of money.

It feels reasonable to me that there’s value in taking stock of where you’re at in your life 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, such as births and deaths, that clauses in your will 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 money legal money. 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 three to five years sounds reasonable to me, but also on an urgent basis if your health declines in a way that your death becomes more imminent.

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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