How to Tell if a Will Was Revoked or Replaced

It's not enough just to find the will--the executor also must make sure that the will-maker didn't revoke or replace it later.

When you search for the will of a deceased person, you may come across a very old document. It’s not uncommon for someone to make a will, tuck it into a drawer, and never update or replace it, even as years or decades pass. If you find such a seemingly outdated document, is it still valid?

Wills Don't Expire

There's no expiration date on a will. If a will was validly executed 40 years ago, it's still valid. But it is unlikely to have improved with age. An extremely old will is probably completely out of date—by the time of death, the person who wrote it probably had a different house, different bank accounts, and maybe even a different spouse and children. But the document is still in force unless it has been revoked or replaced.

Was It Revoked?

To revoke a will, the person who wrote it must either:

  • physically destroy the will, or
  • clearly state, in another document, that he or she intends to revoke the will.

If the will is gone or marked up

The best way to revoke a will is to make a new will, stating that you're revoking the old one. But it's also possible to revoke a will the old-fashioned way, by tearing it up or throwing it into a roaring blaze in the fireplace.

If you come across a will that's been marked up—for example, lines drawn across the text, with "revoked" or similar words written on it, the result may not be clear. Is there doubt about who did the crossing out? If surviving family members don’t agree, you may need witnesses to testify about what happened or even get a handwriting expert to weigh in.

If you can only find a copy

Probate courts generally don't accept copies of a will; they insist on the signed original. If you think that the deceased person signed a will, but you can't find it, most courts will presume that the will-maker intentionally destroyed the will. The existence of a copy doesn't change that, because even someone who tore up his or her will might not have gotten around to finding and destroying all the copies. After all, it's common for people to give copies of their wills to close relatives or the person who's named in the will as executor. Courts generally do not presume that the original was simply lost.

A court will make an exception, however, if you can show that there's a very good reason to accept a copy. For example, if you can prove that a disgruntled relative tore up a will that cut him out, you could probably get a copy of the will admitted to probate. To prove that the copy you're producing is really a copy of the deceased person's final will, you may need to bring witnesses to court to testify about the circumstances –when the original was made, why it may have gone missing, and why they're sure that the deceased person intended the terms of the copy to be enforced.

Is There a Newer Will?

Most people revoke one will by making another, which supersedes the old one. That's why most wills begin with a sentence like "I hereby revoke all previous wills and codicils." (A codicil is an addition to a will; they aren’t very common these days.)

If you find multiple wills, and they contain language like this, then the newest will is presumed to be the one in force—assuming there are no other problems with its validity.

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