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Amending Your Will–Caution: Do Not Try This At Home

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OK — you’ve signed your will and paid the big lawyer’s fee. Now you want to make a change. Do you know how to modify your will? Can you do it without incurring another fee? Shouldn’t it be easy to make the change?

All that might have been going through Donald Wolf’s mind when he made changes back in 2005. You see, he had written a clearly valid will in 1995. In it, he left half of his estate to a married couple who had been long-time friends. A quarter of his estate was to go to another friend, and the final quarter to a fund to assist AIDS patients. He named the wife of the married couple as his personal representative. Then he gave an unsigned copy of the will to the woman named as personal representative.

In 2005, when he was thinking about making a change, Mr. Wolf talked with the couple to whom he was leaving half of his estate. Then he took THEIR copy of his will, crossed out the bequest for AIDS patients and wrote that instead that quarter of his estate would be divided between two other friends. He dated and initialed the changes, but no one signed as witnesses. At some point — perhaps during that same meeting, but his friends could not clearly recall — he did the same thing on the signed original will, as well.

Was Mr. Wolf’s will amendment effective? We’ll give you a minute to think about it, and try to decide what you think. Wait — we’ll give you one more clue: the probate court decided that the attempt to amend his will was ineffective, and ordered that the AIDS fund was still a one-quarter beneficiary.

One of the two friends named in the hand-written amendment appealed the probate court’s decision, and the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the finding. Arizona permits “holographic” wills and amendments; if the material provisions of a will are in the decedent’s handwriting, they do not need to be witnessed. The appellate court decided that Mr. Wolf’s amendment was a holograph, and that it should be given effect. Estate of Wolf, February 7, 2012.

Back to our original questions: assuming you want to change your will, does the Wolf case stand for the proposition that it is as easy as taking your original will out, scribbling the changes, initialing and dating (which Mr. Wolf did) and putting it back away? Emphatically, NO. Here are some reasons why you should NOT use Mr. Wolf’s method for changing your will:

  1. You might live in, or move to, a state where holographic wills are not permitted. Not every state in the U.S. allows holographic wills and codicils, and they are disfavored in other jurisdictions — even in English-speaking countries, where the idea was once embedded in English law. Even where they are permitted the rules vary. It is never a good idea to rely on a holographic will, codicil or amendment.
  2. Even if the handwritten notes are admitted as part of the will, the intent and meaning is usually subject to interpretation and confusion. Is it possible that Mr. Wolf was making notes about possible changes that he meant to discuss with his lawyer — but never got around to completing? Apparently not, but very slight differences in testimony can lead to significant differences in result.
  3. Holographic documents are much more likely to result in litigation — and in delay and additional cost.
  4. The cost of making changes in your will is usually surprising slight. Go ahead — ask the lawyer who prepared your will how much he or she will charge for making changes. You are likely to be surprised at the answer. Why would it be inexpensive? Because a significant part of the cost of preparing your estate plan comes from the time it takes to understand your assets, family situation, goals and intentions. Much of that has already been done, and so amending your will is likely to cost quite a bit less than the original cost of preparing the will. That is true even though most lawyers would rather simply write a new will than prepare an amendment or codicil.
  5. There is a side benefit to meeting with your lawyer to amend your will. Laws change, your situation changes, the world changes — and your lawyer can point out things you ought to be thinking about in addition to the changes you want to make. In fact, you should be visiting with your lawyer once every five years or so — more if your situation is more fluid, or your assets are significant — just to see if you need to update documents.

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.