A will or testament is a legal document by which a person, the testator, expresses their wishes as to how their property is to be distributed at death, and names one or more persons, the executor, to manage the estate until its final distribution. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy.
Though it has at times been thought that a “will” was historically limited to real property while “testament” applies only to dispositions of personal property (thus giving rise to the popular title of the document as “Last Will and Testament”), the historical records show that the terms have been used interchangeably. Thus, the word “will” validly applies to both personal and real property. A will may also create a testamentary trust that is effective only after the death of the testator.
Any person over the age of majority and having “testamentary capacity” (i.e., generally, being of sound mind) can make a will, with or without the aid of a lawyer. Additional requirements may vary, depending on the jurisdiction, but generally include the following requirements:
- The testator must clearly identify themselves as the maker of the will, and that a will is being made; this is commonly called “publication” of the will, and is typically satisfied by the words “last will and testament” on the face of the document.
- The testator should declare that he or she revokes all previous wills and codicils. Otherwise, a subsequent will revokes earlier wills and codicils only to the extent to which they are inconsistent. However, if a subsequent will is completely inconsistent with an earlier one, the earlier will is considered completely revoked by implication.
- The testator may demonstrate that he or she has the capacity to dispose of their property (“sound mind”), and does so freely and willingly.
- The testator must sign and date the will, usually in the presence of at least two disinterested witnesses (persons who are not beneficiaries). There may be extra witnesses, these are called “supernumerary” witnesses, if there is a question as to an interested-party conflict. Some jurisdictions, notably Pennsylvania, have long abolished any requirement for witnesses. In the United States, Louisianarequires both attestation by two witnesses as well as notarization by a notary public. Holographic wills generally require no witnesses to be valid, but depending on the jurisdiction may need to be proved later as to the authenticity of the testator’s signature.
- If witnesses are designated to receive property under the will they are witnesses to, this has the effect, in many jurisdictions, of either (i) disallowing them to receive under the will, or (ii) invalidating their status as a witness. In a growing number of states in the United States, however, an interested party is only an improper witness as to the clauses that benefit him or her (for instance, in Illinois).
- The testator’s signature must be placed at the end of the will. If this is not observed, any text following the signature will be ignored, or the entire will may be invalidated if what comes after the signature is so material that ignoring it would defeat the testator’s intentions.
- One or more beneficiaries (devisees, legatees) must generally be clearly stated in the text, but some jurisdictions allow a valid will that merely revokes a previous will, revokes a disposition in a previous will, or names an executor.
There is no legal requirement that a will be drawn up by a lawyer, although there are pitfalls into which home-made wills can fall. The person who makes a will is not available to explain him or herself, or to correct any technical deficiency or error in expression, when it comes into effect on that person’s death, and so there is little room for mistake. A common error, for example, in the execution of home-made wills in England is to use a beneficiary (typically a spouse or other close family members) as a witness—which may have the effect in law of disinheriting the witness regardless of the provisions of the will.
A will may not include a requirement that an heir commit an illegal, immoral, or other act against public policy as a condition of receipt.
In community property jurisdictions, a will cannot be used to disinherit a surviving spouse, who is entitled to at least a portion of the testator’s estate. In the United States, children may be disinherited by a parent’s will, except in Louisiana, where a minimum share is guaranteed to surviving children except in specifically enumerated circumstances. Many civil law countries follow a similar rule. In England and Wales from 1933 to 1975, a will could disinherit a spouse; however, since the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 such an attempt can be defeated by a court order if it leaves the surviving spouse (or other entitled dependent) without “reasonable financial provision”.
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