What Is a Codicil?

Codicils Explained in Less Than 4 Minutes

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A codicil is a legal document that changes specific provisions of a last will and testament but leaves all the other provisions the same. You can modify, update, or even completely revoke your last will and testament at any time, as long as you're mentally competent.

Learn more about codicils and how they work.

Definition and Examples of a Codicil

A codicil is a legal document that is used to make specific changes to a last will and testament. Rather than needing to rewrite your entire will, you can use a codicil to make any needed amendments, as long as they are fairly simple. In other cases, in which you are making larger changes, it may be better to make a new will.

The general school of thought is that a codicil should suffice if you want to make minor changes. Examples of minor changes could be things such as:

  • Adding or deleting specific bequests
  • Changing who will serve as your personal representative
  • Updating the name of a beneficiary or your personal representative due to their marriage or divorce.

How Does a Codicil Work?

A codicil is almost like a legal "P.S." at the end of your will. If you choose to add a codicil in order to make an amendment, you will need to sign it and have two witnesses sign it as well. Then, keep it along with your original will.

Be sure it is written in a way that is easy to understand. If you've made a series of a few codicils over the years, you may want to consider consolidating all of your changes into a new will. It will prove helpful to your personal representative, who will then have a single document to follow instead of piecing together provisions of four or five separate documents.

It can also help ensure that the court will approve your will as valid; a new will clearly depicts your final wishes instead of a hodgepodge of provisions that might make your intentions seem unclear.

Warning

A probate judge might declare that your entire will is invalid if intentions seem unclear, or they may decide not to honor some or all of your numerous codicils because the overall picture of your final wishes is confusing.

If a judge decides your will is invalid, the end result would be the same as dying without having left one at all. Your estate will pass to your next of kin under state law based on how closely related you are, even if this is not what you would have wanted. Your estate might go to the child you've been estranged from for years. In the absence of heirs, your assets could go to the state when you may have intended for them to go to a charitable cause.

How to Be Sure Your Codicil Is Legal

It's very important that you don't simply mark up your will by hand and stick it back in a drawer if you want to make even minor changes to it. That too can invalidate your entire will. Or, depending on applicable state law, the handwritten changes may be ignored.

Another consideration is that a codicil must be prepared following certain legal guidelines and signed with all the same formalities as your original will.

If you're going to go to all this trouble, you might want to take the safer route and simply create a whole new will instead. Otherwise, ask your estate planning attorney to prepare the codicil for you, so you're sure it will be legally valid and binding. 

Note

Another danger of using a codicil: It might get separated from your will.

When Does a New Will Make Sense?

Consider making a new will if the changes you want to make are substantial, such as adding your new spouse as a beneficiary after a marriage. It is also a good idea if you're cutting out a beneficiary, getting a divorce, adding a baby, changing distributions from family members to charity, or vice versa.

Be sure you make it clear that your original will is revoked. Either destroy it along with any copies that might exist or write "REVOKED" on each page with your initials or signature.

Key Takeaways

  • A codicil is a legal document that is used to make specific changes to a last will and testament.
  • Codicils should be used for minor changes. But if they are unclear, they could invalidate the entire will.
  • Anything beyond the correction of a name or other small changes is likely better served by creating a new will.