How to Remove Someone from Your Last Will and Testament

An older woman talks with her lawyer about how to create a will

Jerry Lewis spent decades in the public eye as a Hollywood icon and the host of the Labor Day telethon for muscular dystrophy. But following his death in 2017, he made tabloid headlines one final time when it was revealed that in his last will and testament, Lewis had disinherited six of his children. He didn’t specify why, but the result was clear: None of the six got a dime of his estimated $50 million estate.

Disinheritance? You need a will to make it happen

While most of us don’t have to worry about tabloid headlines surrounding our final wishes, there’s a lesson for all of us in the Lewis family drama: In order to remove someone from your last will and testament, you first need to have a last will and testament. And surprisingly few of us do.

Only 55 percent of adults over age 55 have a will.

Only 55 percent of adults over age 55 have a will.

*According to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and the Age Wave consultancy

Why do I need a will?

Everyone accumulates things over their lifetime: money, a home, a car, even family heirlooms.

“If you have a will, you can direct what you want to have happen to those assets. If you don’t have a will, it’s going to be essentially left to the intestacy laws of your state.”

Shirley Berger Whitenack, a partner at Schenck, Price, Smith & King

Intestacy laws — laws that pertain to dying without a will — aren’t likely to distribute your assets as you’d prefer. “If you want to get the property that you own to somebody in particular, you have to put that in a written will. That’s the only way to assure that will happen,” explains Whitenack.

On the flip side, if you want to prevent someone from inheriting your assets, it’s important to state that you are intentionally excluding that person — and possibly his or her descendants — as a beneficiary. To make it harder for anyone to contest this decision, sign the will in front of witnesses who can attest to your mental capacity and that you’re signing free of undue influence.

Having a will has other benefits, too. It lets you choose the executor of your estate (the person or institution you appoint to carry out the terms of your will), compared with having the state appoint one for you. And it allows parents to name guardians to raise their young children if the parents are unable.

When should I update my will?

“A will should be changed as often as your life’s circumstances require it.”

Kerry Peck, who serves on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law and Aging and is managing partner of Peck Ritchey, an elder law practice in Chicago

Peck recommends updating your will at these times:

  • When you marry or divorce
  • When you have children or grandchildren
  • When you move to another state
  • If your beneficiaries or executors die or become disabled
  • If the charities you’ve chosen to receive gifts close or change names
  • If you’ve simply changed your mind about any of the details in your will

“People’s lives and interests change, their friends change, even their desire to leave assets to particular family members change depending on how those relationships change,” explains Peck.

Yvonne Ascher, a trusts and estates attorney in Monterey, California, and a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, recommends clients “look at their will at least every five years and come in for a checkup every 10 years.”

How do I make a will?

It’s common for people to hire an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Ask family, friends, your accountant or financial planner for referrals. Research the attorney’s professional credentials and meet in person.

“See if there’s good chemistry there and if it’s somebody you’re comfortable working with,” advises Peck. This is important, as you’ll be sharing intimate family and financial details with this individual.

Also, get a clear understanding of the fees involved. “Don’t be afraid to ask up front what it’s going to cost,” advises Ascher.

There are a number of online tools and resources to allow you to create your own will — which may be a good option if your wishes are fairly simple.

Experts advise that everyone should have two other very important documents: a health care directive and durable power of attorney, which give your appointed agents the authority to make health and financial decisions on your behalf if you cannot, such as if you’re gravely ill or have dementia.

“Nowadays most people will go through some period of time before they die when they will not be in control of their own decisions,” points out Ascher.

18 percent of people 55 and older have all three legal document

18 percent of people 55 and older have all three legal documents.

According to the Merrill Lynch/Age Wave study

When it comes to the final distribution of your assets, the lesson is clear: Whether you want to include someone, or exclude someone, you need a will to ensure your final wishes are realized.

Whole Life Insurance policies

To help pay for your final expenses, consider Guaranteed Whole Life Insurance from United of Omaha Life Insurance Company. For people ages 45-85 (NY, 50-75) choose who you would like to handle your final expenses and a policy to help cover any unexpected costs that may come up to make your final wishes realized.

*Leaving a Legacy report conducted in September 2018 by Kantar TNS for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave; released in 2019.