Once your Will has been properly signed and witnessed, your estate plan is officially in place.
You don't need to take it to the courthouse or file it with the state.
There's no waiting period for it to take effect.
It won't expire.
It is valid, and will remain valid…
Unless something happens to the original documents.
There are actually several ways that you could accidentally invalidate your Will and nullify your estate plan, and they all involve damage or alterations to the document itself. For this reason, when clients sign their documents at Peach State Wills and Trusts, we conclude the meeting by explaining these potential mistakes and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: Making Written Changes to Your Will
Typically, people complete their estate planning long before the documents will be needed. Over the years, circumstances change - assets are purchased and sold, and relationships change. Sometimes these life changes affect one's estate plan. This is to be expected, and we encourage our clients to review their plan periodically and determine if it still reflects their wishes. However, some people make the major mistake of pulling out a pen and writing in the changes themselves.
Marking up a Will, whether by writing in items or crossing out sections, invalidates the Will.
Not only will the changes you made not be honored, but your entire Will may be called into question and can cause a legal headache for your loved ones. If you want to make a change to your documents, an estate planning attorney can help you by either preparing a codicil (a valid amendment to the Will), or preparing a new document altogether. When you decide to change your estate plan, give Peach State Wills and Trusts a call before breaking out the fountain pen.
Mistake #2: Not Protecting Your Will from the Elements
Understand this—your original signed documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney, and Advance Directive for Healthcare, are your plan. These documents are simply paper and ink, and that makes them vulnerable. If not protected, they could be waterlogged in a flooded basement, or burned up in a housefire. They could also be destroyed by more mundane means; perhaps a hungry dog, a toddler who found the scissors, or even you, being a little too careless when shredding old documents.
Whether they are soaked, burned, or torn to bits, your estate planning documents are invalidated if they are destroyed. That's why we strongly recommend investing in a fireproof safe or lockbox to store your plan. You could also keep it in a safe deposit box at a bank. While your documents don't have to be kept pristine—dog-ears, creases, and wrinkles won't invalidate you plan—you do need to ensure that they are safe from the elements, and easily accessible when needed.
Mistake #3: Misplacing Your Will
We know that if your Will is destroyed your plan is invalid, but what if the documents are lost? If your original Will cannot be located, it does not automatically invalidate your plan. If there is a copy of the Will available, your executor could petition the probate court to accept the copy and bring forth evidence to prove that you prepared the Will and did not intend to invalidate or destroy it. Understand, however, that this can be difficult to prove.
Some might think that a wise protection against a lost Will is to give copies to loved ones. However, we advise against this. You will likely make changes to your Will throughout your life, and you do not want to have copies of old versions that do not reflect your wishes floating around. If your Will is lost at your death, someone could present one of these outdated versions to the court in its stead. If accepted, your assets could be distributed in a way that you did not approve of, and your wishes dishonored.
Again, we strongly recommend investing in a safe, lockbox, or safe deposit box to store your Will and prevent it from being misplaced. Rather than giving copies to your loved ones, let your executor know where it is and how to access it when the time comes.
Mistake#4: Not Updating Your Plan to Reflect Changed Circumstances
Generally speaking, your Will is not going to go bad due to the passage of time. It won't be revoked because it's five, ten, twenty, or thirty years old, assuming it was validly executed. But, there are certain conditions that might occur that will change your plan because of changes in your life. For example, if you get married and your Will did not contemplate that event happening, your spouse will be entitled to a spousal share as if you had died without a Will. Likewise, if you have a child and such child is not contemplated in the Will, that child will be entitled to inherit as well. A divorce will treat your spouse as if he or she died before you unless your Will specifies otherwise, meaning that the divorced spouse will not inherit from you and will also not be able to serve as a fiduciary (executor, trustee, etc.). The key takeaway is that if your immediate family tree changes after you complete your estate planning, you should certainly review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure your wishes are properly documented and will be followed.
For more information on estate planning, click here to request our free Guide to Estate Planning in Georgia. If you're ready to get your planning done, call Peach State Wills and Trusts at (678) 344-5342. Estate planning doesn't have to be hard, and we can help.SM