Can You Cancel a Will?

A will is an important document since it sets forth who will receive your property following your death and who will be in charge of settling your estate. Without a will, your property will be distributed as set forth in your state’s intestacy laws, and you may not like their distribution scheme.

So you’ve signed a will, but now one of the people you’ve named in your will has died, or a child or grandchild who was to receive a portion of your estate is in trouble with the law, going bankrupt, getting divorced, or simply exhibiting behavior you do not approve of. Now leaving them something under your will seems like it may not be such a great idea after all. Can you just tear it up and start over?

Destroying your original will certainly is possible, but someone may try to probate an existing copy, thereby defeating your wishes. So it's best either to destroy all copies (but do you really know where they all are?) or to have an attorney prepare an amendment (a “codicil”) to that will. This codicil will indicate that you wish your property not to pass as set forth in your previous will dated such and such, but instead to pass as if you had no will, per the intestacy statute of your state of residence. This way, even if a copy turns up, your later will trumps the earlier will so that your wishes will be carried out.

Note that a well-drafted will should always include the statement “hereby revoking all prior wills signed by me,” or words to that effect. This is to make it clear that your new will is not deemed an amendment to an existing will, but is a complete replacement to any prior wills.

Can’t you just draw a line through the part(s) of your current will that you do not like, and then write your initials next to the crossed-out text? This is not recommended for a number of reasons. First of all, when you signed your will, you probably had two witnesses and a notary also sign the document (these requirements vary from state to state). But your strike-through has no witnesses and no notary, so it may not be deemed an effective change. Without witnesses testifying that you were “of sound mind” at the time of the change, someone who prefers the way the will read before may attempt to challenge the change.

Also, you may not have dealt with what happens to the property whose disposition you just changed, so that it will actually go to someone you had not planned to receive the property. In any event, the will will surely wind up in court where the effect of your strike-out will be argued by attorneys representing different family members, at great expense to everyone involved, and perhaps generating bad feelings between family members that may persist for years.

The lesson to all this is not to try to make a quick and easy change to your will to try to save time and money (by avoiding hiring an attorney). You may just wind up causing your family to spend a LOT more time—and money—straightening things out after your death!

K. Gabriel Heiser is an attorney with over 25 years of experience in elder law and estate planning. He is the author of "How to Protect Your Family's Assets from Devastating Nursing Home Costs: Medicaid Secrets," an annually updated practical guide for the layperson.

Visit Medicaid Secrets

View full profile

You May Also LikeSee all guides >

Veterans' Benefits

Find federal benefits available to your family.

Home Care

How to find, hire and manage home care.

Caregivers' Survival

Everything you need to care for an elderly family member.

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!