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It’s important to create a last will and testament to ensure that your assets are distributed to your heirs in a manner consistent with your wishes.  But once it has been created, when should you change your will?  A will is a living document that should be reviewed and updated periodically as your life circumstances change.

“Testate” is the legal term used to identify a will that has successfully followed all the rules under Alabama inheritance laws.  Such a will must be signed by a maker in front of two witnesses, who also sign the will.  It is recommended that witnesses not be heirs, to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest or undue influence.

In Alabama, if you die without a will, it is known as “intestate succession.”  This means your estate must go through a lengthy and often expensive probate process before heirs can receive your assets.  By creating a well-crafted will, you can help your surviving family members avoid many of the challenges of probate.

After creating your will, you should update it at various intervals reflecting life’s milestones.  Some of these include:

  • Getting married
  • Having children
  • Buying a home or real estate
  • Buying or selling a business
  • Getting divorced/remarried
  • Receiving an inheritance
  • Death of a spouse
  • Retirement.

It’s important to update your will when these milestones occur, because your will’s existing language may not encompass your current reality.  For example, a young married couple creating a will for the first time may not have any information in the will about division of assets among children because they don’t have any kids yet.  However, 10 years later, they may have several children, and they would want to update their will to reflect this.  In another example, when a spouse dies, the surviving spouse would likely want to update their will to reflect changes in who will receive which assets.  The best way to update a will and keep it relevant is to talk to a skilled and experienced wills lawyer.

Why should you update your will?

An estate planning attorney explains how wills are contested in court.

It’s a good idea to review and update your will periodically, because a will that is vague, confusing, or outdated may be challenged in court by dissatisfied heirs or argumentative relatives.  Anything you can do to avoid this is a good idea, because court challenges are expensive and can be acrimonious.  Alabama law provides for contesting the validity of a will in Chapter 8, Article 7, Sub-sections 43-8-130 through 43-8-202.  Hiring a skilled estate planning attorney to craft a customized will for you is the best way to ensure that your end-of-life wishes are clearly articulated and carried out.

If, on the other hand, you feel that your loved one’s will is being wrongly interpreted or an older person was unduly influenced when creating their will, you can contest a will in court.  The attorneys at Caldwell Wenzel & Asthana have represented many clients who contest wills that they believe are invalid.  We stand ready to litigate a will in court on behalf of our clients.

Does a will ever get outdated?

There is no legal time limit on a will. For example, just because a will is 20 years old, this doesn’t mean it’s no longer valid.  However, a will can get outdated for practical reasons, like your life circumstances change, you own more assets, or you’ve gotten divorced or remarried.  It’s a good idea to create a new will or add a codicil (a formal legal amendment) when you reach additional milestones in life.

Other documents in an estate plan

In addition to a will, there are other important estate planning documents.

A comprehensive estate plan contains a will, but there are other important documents that can also be included.  Following are important documents to consider:

  1. Power of Attorney
    A durable power of attorney is an authorization by which a person (principal) designates another person as his or her “agent” in writing or “attorney-in-fact” to act on the principal’s behalf in a financial, business, or legal matter. According to the laws of the state of Alabama, a durable power of attorney must contain words that demonstrate the intent of the principal that the authority conferred on the attorney-in-fact or agent is exercisable notwithstanding the principal’s subsequent disability, incompetency, or incapacity. In other words, depending on the writing, a durable power of attorney either continues to remain valid after the principal becomes incapacitated or becomes effective after the principal becomes incapacitated.
  2. Living Will/Advanced Directive
    Under Alabama law, a person may designate under a durable power of attorney, another person (health care proxy) who shall have the authority to make health care decisions on behalf of the principal.
  3. Revocable Living Trusts
    A revocable living trust is a relationship whereby one party (settlor or grantor) during his or her lifetime transfers real and/or personal property to a second party (trustee) for the benefit of a third party (beneficiary). This trust relationship is governed by a document titled “trust agreement” or “trust declaration.” A trust agreement outlines the identities of the settlor, trustee, and beneficiary, and identifies how the trustee is to manage and distribute the property placed in the trust. More than one individual or corporate entity can play the role of a trustee, and a trust agreement can designate more than one beneficiary. Further, the same person can be the settlor, trustee, and beneficiary of a trust. An estate planning attorney can help you understand these trust agreements.
  4. Guardianship Designations
    This document should be created if you have minor children. It lists the name(s) of adults whom you wish to raise your children and serve as their legal guardians in the event of your death.
  5. Beneficiaries Designations
    This document is simply a centralized list that states the names of beneficiaries of life insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank accounts, stock portfolios, and other financial assets that do not have to go through probate.
  6. Letter of Intent
    While not a legally binding document, a letter of intent is simply a place for you to provide additional instructions to heirs about how you would like your assets to be handled. This is also a place where you can detail your wishes for your funeral and burial among other things.

Contact a Mobile, AL, estate planning lawyer today

If you want to create a will or update an existing will, the estate planning lawyers at Caldwell Wenzel & Asthana would be happy to help.  We have crafted unique wills customized to meet the needs of many different clients.  To find out more, call us at (251) 444-7000.