What is a Codicil? (And Why You Shouldn’t Do One)

Senior Law News | Mar 7, 2022 | Letha Sgritta McDowell

Having an estate plan is important at every stage of life. Having a will makes the disposition of your assets at your death much easier for your loved ones. Even with minimal assets, a will is important. Just as critical to having an estate plan are regular reviews and updates as your circumstances change. I am often asked if changes can be made to a will. If the testator (the person writing the will) is alive and mentally competent, they can make changes to the will. However, I am asked just as frequently if changes can be made to a will by a codicil. The answer I provide is always the same, technically yes, change can be made with a codicil, but I would never recommend using a codicil to make changes.

A codicil is a legal document that supplements a will. It can be used to make changes or replacements without including all the provisions of the original will. While a codicil does not include all the provisions of a will, it must be executed with the same formalities as a will. Since a codicil only supplements a will, it is irrelevant without the original will — which is why I never recommend creating one. To be valid and used after the death of the testator, the named personal representative must have both the original will as well as the original codicil. It is not unusual for one of the critical documents to go missing which renders the codicil useless and frustrates the intent of the testator.

The term codicil originated in the 15th century, which explains the concept of the codicil. Documents such as a will were difficult to produce and difficult to change. The actual production of the document was time consuming. How estate planning is practiced has certainly changed since the 15th century, but even as late as the 1980s, document production was difficult and time consuming, done mostly with typewriters. However, with the rise of the personal computer and word processing, the time it takes to create documents has been drastically reduced. Today, with word processors and document assembly systems, document production is significantly easier than it was, therefore the time it takes to create a codicil to a will is equivalent to the time it takes to create a new will.

Since creating a codicil to make changes to a will requires the same amount of time as creating a new will, and having a codicil requires maintaining multiple legal documents which increases the likelihood of loss, it is a better practice to simply create a new will. Of course, it is also critical that, if you are making changes to your estate plan, you thoroughly review your plan to ensure that it still meets your needs and that there are no other changes that should be made due to either a change in your personal circumstances or changes in the law.


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Letha Sgritta McDowell

Attorney, Shareholder, CELA
757-399-7506 | 252-722-2890
[email protected]

Letha Sgritta McDowell is a Shareholder of Hook Law practicing in the areas of estate planning, elder law, special needs planning, estate and trust administration, asset protection planning, long-term care planning, personal injury settlement consulting, guardianships & conservatorships, and tax law. Ms. McDowell’s clients range from high-net-worth individuals with over $75 million in net worth to families with limited assets.

Ms. McDowell is a past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and was named as a Fellow of the prestigious American College of Trusts and Estates Council (“ACTEC”) in 2020. She is certified as an elder law attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation (“CELA”) and Board Certified as a specialist in Elder Law by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization. Furthermore, McDowell is accredited to prepare and prosecute claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ms. McDowell is currently the chair of NAELA’s strategic planning committee, a member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Chapter of NAELA, and a member of the Board of Directors for the Purdue Center for Cancer Research. She is the former Chair of the North Carolina State Bar’s Elder Law Specialization Committee and is the former Editor-in-Chief of “Gray Matters”, the newsletter for the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association. She is a consultant for InterActive Legal and has worked on several law and technology initiatives including IBM’s Watson project. Along with her experience practicing as an attorney, she has dedicated much of her time writing for national publications including, but not limited to: Wolters Kluwer, Wealthmanagement.com, the NAELA Journal, Trust & Estates Magazine and many more.

Practice Areas

  • Elder Law
  • Estate & Trust Administration
  • Estate Planning
  • Asset Protection Planning
  • Long-Term Care Planning
  • Special Needs Planning

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