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Please Don’t Handwrite Changes On Your Will

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holographic codicil

Arizona law allows you to sign a “holographic” will (or a holographic codicil). That means you can handwrite your own will and sign it. Such a will or codicil does not need the two witnesses usually required. So that means you can easily write — or change — your will yourself. Right? Please do not try this at home.

Why are we so opposed to holographic wills? Because people get them wrong way too often. Good legal advice is actually inexpensive, and the cost of not getting advice can be high.

Illustrations from our archives

We have written about holographic wills, and how they go wrong, before. In 2014 we described a Florida case involving a holographic will. In that case the legal fees probably exceeded the amount of the inheritance at issue.

While most holographic wills might turn out just fine, the risk is too high for you to write your own will. Besides, it’s more than just writing an effective will — you need advice and help with your entire estate plan. That includes the possibility of a living trust, the need for powers of attorney, and the ideas and experience your lawyer brings to the discussion.

Even when a holographic will is effective, there might be other problems that legal advice could have helped avoid. Have you taken care of beneficiary designations, alternative distributions, and appointment of a personal representative? That’s the kind of thing we (lawyers) focus on.

What about changing an existing will?

Most of the holographic codicil cases we see involve the same basic story. Someone prepares a proper, effective, printed will and signs it in front of two witnesses. Then, months or years later, they want to make a change — often a “small” change. They write something on the will itself, and figure they’ve taken care of the problem that had worried them.

Is that enough? Often it is not. The change they intended to make might even be obvious, and their plan clear — but the change might not be effective.

When a handwritten change to a will is signed, it might qualify as a holographic codicil. That might be true whether the writing is on the will itself, or on a separate piece of paper. Remember that not every state permits holographic codicils, or holographic wills. Arizona does, and so does North Carolina.

A recent case about a holographic codicil

James Paul Allen lived in North Carolina. He had gone to a lawyer to prepare his will, and it was properly printed out, signed and witnessed. It left his entire estate to a long-time girlfriend. If the girlfriend died before him, Mr. Allen’s will provided that one parcel of real estate would go to his girlfriend’s granddaughters — but with a life estate for a nephew, Melvin Woolard.

Mr. Allen’s girlfriend died sometime after he signed his will. When the will was located, it looked like he had written on the original document: “Beginning 7-7-03 do not honor Article IV Void Article lV James Paul Allen.”

Article IV of Mr. Allen’s will was the one that had left a life estate in the real estate to his nephew Mr. Woolard. Did that mean that he had amended his will to delete that life estate? If so, his girlfriend’s granddaughters would get the real estate right away; if not, Mr. Woolard would be entitled to live in, rent and otherwise control the property for the rest of his life.

North Carolina court proceedings

Mr. Woolard filed a petition in the probate court, arguing that Mr. Allen had effectively signed a holographic codicil. The probate judge agreed, and ruled in his favor; he would receive a life estate in the property.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals disagreed. According to that court, there were at least two problems with Mr. Allen’s handwritten change. First, it seemed to indicate it would be effective at a future date. Assuming it had been written before July 7, 2003, it said it was to become effective on that date — and that was not permitted under North Carolina law.

The appellate court also found the handwritten note ineffective for another reason. Even assuming it was written by Mr. Allen, it referred to the language in Article IV of the original, printed will. That meant that it was incorporating a non-handwritten provision. In fact, according to the Court of Appeals, the modification could not be understood without reference to the printed portion of the will.

The appellate court sent the contest back to the probate court, ordering that it enter judgment in favor of Mr. Allen’s nephew. The handwritten notation was completely ineffective — even if it actually had been written by Mr. Allen, and even if it had been clear that he intended not to leave any share to Mr. Woolard. In the Matter of the Will of Allen, June 6, 2017.

Arizona law

Arizona, like North Carolina, permits holographic wills and would recognize a holographic codicil. The key provision is found in Arizona Revised Statutes section 14-2503. The requirements are actually quite simple: the document or change must be in the person’s own handwriting, and must be signed. The hardest part: the handwriting must include the “material provisions” of the will or codicil.

So would Mr. Allen’s handwritten note have been effective under Arizona law? Possibly. The North Carolina decision was based on what Arizona courts would likely see as a pretty narrow interpretation. But that uncertainty is precisely why you should not rely on handwritten notes on your will to make intended changes.

On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Allen intended to confuse and annoy his heirs and beneficiaries, and to cost them significant legal expenses in pursuing their interests. In the unlikely case that he intended that effect, he would have done a heck of a job.

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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.