What is a will?
A will is a legal document that lets you tell the world who should receive which of your assets after your death. It also allows you to name guardians for any dependent children. Without a will, the courts decide what happens to your assets and who is responsible for your kids.
Wills do have limitations. In particular, the beneficiary designations on financial accounts, insurance policies and other assets take precedence over wills, so it’s important to make sure your beneficiary designations are up to date and reflect your wishes.
For example, say you list your husband as the primary beneficiary on your retirement plan at work, but then you get divorced and marry someone else. If your first husband is listed as the account beneficiary, he will receive those assets at your death – even if your will says otherwise.
A will also allows you to name your executor, the person who will be in charge of your estate. Before you select an executor, make sure you understand the tasks he or she will need to perform, which include distributing your property, filing tax returns and processing claims from creditors. Your executor should be someone you trust completely – and don’t forget to ask if he or she is willing to take on such a big responsibility.
What are the requirements for the creation of a will?
Any person over the age of majority and of sound mind (having appropriate mental capacity) can draft his own 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 himself 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 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 has the capacity to dispose of his 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, Louisiana requires both attestation by two witnesses as well as notarization by a notary public. “Holographic” or handwritten wills generally require no witnesses to be valid.
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.