A person generally drafts a will to ensure that when she dies, her property goes to the people she wants to have it most. Obviously, these determinations are based on a variety of circumstances, including personal preference. However, as time passes, circumstances can change in such a way that you may want to name different beneficiaries. This may be due to a falling out between you and the original beneficiaries or the original beneficiaries passing away. To change the terms of how your property will be distributed, you may choose to make your prior will null and void.
Destroy the Old Will
Physically destroying all copies of the old will is generally sufficient to nullify it. Destruction can occur multiple ways, such as by tearing copies of the will to bits, shredding it, or writing the term “VOID” in big letters on its pages. To ensure that the will is nullified, it should be destroyed completely. If you nullify your will in this manner without replacing it, your property will be distributed according to your state’s intestacy code. This means you will not determine who receives your property. Instead, percentages of or all of your property will be transferred to your living relatives as designated by state law.
Draft a New Will
Normally a new will nullifies all previous versions as long as its terms supplant the terms of the old will. This method of nullification has advantages over merely destroying the prior version because you retain the ability to dispose of your property as you see fit as opposed to relying on the intestacy code. It is still a good idea to destroy prior wills to minimize confusion. The requirements for drafting a valid will varies by state, but you generally must write down the new terms and sign the document in the presence of two witnesses. The witnesses generally should not have a financial stake in the will and should be over the age of 18. Be sure to date the new will to establish it was drafted later than prior versions.
A codicil is a way to amend a will by effectively “nullifying” certain portions of it. This is an effective strategy when you only want to change a small portion of your will. The requirements for drafting a codicil will mirror, in most respects, the requirements for drafting a valid will in your state. The codicil should reference the old will and specify what specific clauses in the old will you are changing.
Another way of nullifying a specific provision of a will is by giving away the property in question while you are still alive. If your will makes a specific gift to a person and then you give away that asset prior to your death, he receives neither the item nor any other property instead. This is known as ademption. For example, if your will leaves your engagement ring to your niece, but you then give the ring to your daughter, your niece will not receive anything when you pass away. This only works when your will refers to specific items and does not give the recipient the option of receiving other assets if the item is not available.
John Cromwell specializes in financial, legal and small business issues. Cromwell holds a bachelor's and master's degree in accounting, as well as a Juris Doctor. He is currently a co-founder of two businesses.