You see it happen in the movies all the time.
A ruthless, wealthy widow warns one of her children that he will be "written out" of the will unless he mends his ways. Then the son painstakingly plots to murder his mother before she can change the will. That's the way it happens on the big screen, at least.
Why, you might wonder, does it take so long to change a will? Can't the widow simply scratch out the son's name and write in someone else's as the beneficiary of her generosity? Or can't she just tear off the page that included the gifts to him?
Not so fast. Changing a will requires all the formalities associated with writing and executing a will in the first place. In fact, adding your own handwritten additions or other modifications may invalidate the entire will.
There are two basic ways to change your will: Write a new one or use a codicil. That's a fancy, legal name for a written amendment to the will. "A codicil is a sort of legal P.S. to the will and is executed with all of the formalities of a will," explains Denis Clifford, author of several books about wills and probate.
A codicil is usually used for minor changes. If you want cousin Fred instead of Uncle Harry to inherit your autographed picture of Sandy Koufax, either because Uncle Harry has died or fallen from your graces, you can make that sort of change by codicil. Or you can substitute the Red Cross for the United Way as the recipient of your charitable bequest.
A codicil must also be signed and witnessed by two people, just as the original will was. Often, if there is room, it is typed on the last page of an existing will, but it can also be contained on a separate sheet. It should be stapled to the existing will and to all copies. The codicil should refer to the previous will by its date.
Commonly, the codicil expressly confirms all the parts of the original will that are not being changed. Lawyers often use language something like this: "In all other respects, I confirm and republish my will."
If you are making substantial changes to the instructions in your will, you should have a new one prepared, signed and witnessed. This may be advisable if there have been significant changes in your personal life, such as a divorce, remarriage, adoption of children or a move to another state. This is especially true if you move from a community property state, such as California, to a state that does not follow community property rules.
Nolo Press, the legal self-help publishing firm in Berkeley, has made changing and updating a will relatively easy for computer buffs with WillWriter, a software program and book that guides you through the process of preparing and printing your own will.
Then when you want to make a change, you can just turn on the old computer and print up a new one. Of course, you should be sure to destroy the old will. When the new will is signed and properly witnessed, the old will is automatically canceled, but it is still prudent to say in the new will that you are revoking all previous wills and codicils.
If you are planning to prepare or update a simple will, you might want to review Clifford's book, "Nolo's Simple Will Book," or WillWriter. Both are available from Nolo Press, 950 Parker St., Berkeley, Calif. 94710. Obviously, if you have a large or complicated estate, you should consult an experienced lawyer.
California also has a fill-in-the-blanks form of statutory will that can be used by many people with simple estates. The form and an explanation of it are contained in the Probate Code beginning at Section 6200. The form is available at stationery stores and from the State Bar Assn. for a $1 fee. Send a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope to Will Forms, P.O. Box 411, San Francisco, Calif. 94101.