Wills have been used since people owned property, and lawyers have only been in serious surplus for the last century. So what did we do to before lawyers?
The answer is simple. We wrote our own wills. And today, many handwritten wills, wills done in crayon, and wills done on a paper bag are indeed valid. Handwritten wills, also known as holographic wills, are valid in most states. Although wills must generally be signed by two witnesses, if the holographic will is “entirely in your own handwriting, no witnesses are required.”
What is more important is that the will is written to begin with. A will, defined as “The legal instrument that permits a person, the testator, to make decisions on how his estate (property and assets) will be managed and distributed after his death.” by West’s Legal Dictionary, is a depressing necessity.
Dying intestate, or without a will, can lead to ugly disputes over assets. And worse, the courts will step in and appoint an executor, which further depletes the estate. Also, often the courts are ignorant of the deceased’s wishes, and just apportion the money according to the statute for intestacy in that particular state.
When “rock idol” Jimi Hendrix died suddenly in 1970, he left no will. It is quite possible that Hendrix, like many of us, thought he was too young to need one.
As it was, according to the laws involving dying intestate, the chief beneficiary of the will was Hendrix’s estranged father. Since then, there have been bitter disputes over the estate between the dead musician’s family, band members, and women claiming to be mothers of his children. If the singer had written a clear will, the state would not have intervened.
Generally, there are set laws about property distribution in cases where there is no will, although they vary from state to state, and may well disregard the wishes of the deceased. Of course, laws vary from state to state, so looking up your state’s statutes on wills is essential to ensure that your will is valid.
Certainly, if an unmarried couple has been living together for many years, and there are no “common-law” marriage laws in a given state, the interests of the surviving partner can be completely disregarded by the court in favor of a relative who had no contact with the deceased.
If you die intestate, and the law must appoint a guardian, the court costs can deplete the estate. This is even more of a reason why a will is in your best interests–even written without a lawyer.
Surprisingly, writing a valid will can be inexpensive — or even free. Will formats can vary, but it’s important to state certain things clearly:
- In general, a typed-out will usually requires the signature of two witnesses to make it a legally valid document. By comparison, in some states, handwritten wills require no witnesses for the will to be valid. Again, check your state’s rules by looking up your state’s statutes on wills.
- A will in handwriting does not require witnesses but must be signed by the testator, that’s the person making the will, who must be of adult age.
- State that this is your “Last Will and Testament” and that you are of sound mind, and not under duress– i.e. being manipulated by an evil relative.
- List spouse and children, and name the executor, someone trusted to carry out your wishes concerning who gets what, and who will handle funeral costs, etc. Be sure to get someone who is on the ball enough to handle complicated things like probate court and inheritance taxes.
- List specific bequests, such as “I leave my 1969 Dodge convertible to Samantha Smith, my aunt” you can even list the reason why…”Sam was always so kind to me as a child.” Be sure to list the last name of everyone, not just “my aunt Sam ” or “my best friend Skip.” and be SURE to describe what you’re leaving so ruby rings and ruby earrings are not mixed up in who gets what. For instance, “I leave John Jones my gold Gucci watch that I keep in the night-table drawer.” Leave no mysteries.
- After the bequests, and paying whatever debts you may have left, who gets the rest? This is the residuary estate, and it is important that no details are left out. Unclaimed money can revert to the state.
- You must sign the will, and have two witnesses sign the will, if it is typed. The witnesses must not be beneficiaries of the estate, but other than that, can be perfect strangers.
If there are still questions about format, just Google “Make a Will” and pick the one you like best!
However you handle the will, ensure that you don’t die without one. And if your estate is complicated, or if you have unscrupulous relatives who may fight your wishes — suck it up — buy some lawyer’s time.
The Squirrel says: Be sure not to alternate between handwriting and typing, such as hand writing in the blanks of a downloaded form. In some states, a holographic will must be entirely in the will maker’s own handwriting for it to be valid, and must include certain things like a dated signature whereas a printed form with blanks that you fill in (like this sample will) may not automatically be valid unless there are witnesses. However, other states will allow a partially handwritten will to be valid without witnesses, under certain conditions. Check on your state here.