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A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his estate and provides for the transfer of his property at death. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy.
In the strictest sense, a "will" has historically been 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"), though this distinction is seldom observed today. A will may also create a testamentary trust that is effective only after the death of the testator.
Requirements for creation
Any person over the age of majority and of sound mind can draft his or her own will without the aid of an attorney. Additional requirements may vary, depending on the jurisdiction, but generally include the following requirements:
- The testator must clearly identify himself or herself 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 must 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 must demonstrate that he or she has the capacity to dispose of his or her property, 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. In a growing number of states, an interested party is only an improper witness as to the clauses that benefit him or her (this is the case in Illinois, for instance).
- 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.
- An heir, an heiress or multiple heirs must be clearly stated in the text
After the testator has died, a probate proceeding may be initiated in court to determine the validity of the will or wills that the testator may have created, i.e., which will satisfied the legal requirements, and to appoint an executor. In most cases, during probate, at least one witness is called upon to testify or sign a "proof of witness" affidavit. In some jurisdictions, however, statutes may provide requirements for a "self-proving" will (must be met during the execution of the will), in which case witness testimony may be forgone during probate. If the will is ruled invalid in probate, then inheritance will occur under the laws of intestacy as if a will were never drafted. Often there is a time limit, usually 30 days, within which a will must be admitted to probate. Only an original will can be admitted to probate in the vast majority of jurisdictions – even the most accurate photocopy will not suffice.
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 – although this has the effect in law of disinheriting the witness regardless of the provisions of the will.
Some states recognize a holographic will, made out entirely in the testator's own hand. Contrary to popular opinion, the unique aspect of a holographic will is less that it is written by the testator and more that it need not be witnessed. A minority of states even recognize the validity of nuncupative wills, which are expressed orally. In England, the formalities of wills are relaxed for soldiers who express their wishes on active service; any such will is known as a serviceman's 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 England, a will may disinherit a spouse, but close relations, including spouses, excluded from a will may apply to the court for provision to be made for them at the court's discretion.
It is a good idea that the testator give his executor the power to pay debts, taxes, and administration expenses (probate, etc.). Warren Burger's will did not contain this, which wound up costing his estate thousands. This is not a consideration in English law, which provides that all such expenses will fall on the estate in any case.
Types of wills generally include:
- nuncupative (non-culpatory) will - oral or dictated
- holographic will - written in the hand of the testator
- will in solemn form - signed by testator and witnesses
- self-proved will - in solemn form with affidavits of subscribing witnesses to avoid probate
- notarial will - will in public form and prepared by a civil-law notary (civil-law jurisdictions and Louisiana)
- mystic will - sealed until death
- serviceman's will - will of person in active-duty military service and usually lacking certain formalities
- reciprocal/mirror/mutual/husband and wife wills - wills made by two or more parties that make similar provisions in favor of each other
- unsolemn will - will in which the executor is unnamed
Methods and effect
Intentional physical destruction of a will by the testator will revoke it, through deliberately burning or tearing the physical document itself, or by striking out the signature. In most jurisdictions, partial revocation is allowed if only part of the text or a particular provision is crossed out. Other jurisdictions will either ignore the attempt or hold that the entire will was actually revoked. A testator may also be able to revoke by the physical act of another (as would be necessary if he is physically incapacitated), if this is done in his presence and in the presence of witnesses. Some jurisdictions may presume that a will has been destroyed if it had been last seen in the possession of the testator but is found mutilated or cannot be found after his or her death.
A will may also be revoked by the execution of a new will. Most wills contain stock language that expressly revokes any wills that came before them, however, because normally a court will still attempt to read the wills together to the extent they are consistent.
In some jurisdictions, the complete revocation of a will automatically revives the next most recent will, while others hold that revocation leaves the testator with no will so that his or her heirs will instead inherit by intestate succession.
In England and Wales, marriage will automatically revoke a will as it is presumed that upon marriage, a testator will want to review the will. A statement in a will that it is made in contemplation of forthcoming marriage to a named person will override this. Divorce, conversely, will not revoke a will, but will have the effect that the former spouse is treated as if they had died before the testator and so will not benefit.
Dependent relative revocation
Many jurisdictions exercise an equitable doctrine known as dependent relative revocation ("DRR"). Under this doctrine, courts may disregard a revocation that was based on a mistake of law on the part of the testator as to the effect of the revocation. For example, if a testator mistakenly believes that an earlier will can be revived by the revocation of a later will, the court will ignore the later revocation if the later will comes closer to fulfilling the testator's intent than not having a will at all. The doctrine also applies when a testator executes a second, or new will and revokes his old will under the (mistaken) belief that the new will would be valid. However, for some reason the new will is not valid and a court may apply the doctrine to reinstate and probate the old will, as the court holds that the testator would prefer the old will to intestate succession.
Before applying the doctrine, courts may require (with rare exceptions) that there have been an alternative plan of disposition of the property. That is, after revoking the prior will, the testator could have made an alternative plan of disposition. Such a plan would show that the testator intended the revocation to result in the property going elsewhere, rather than just being a revoked disposition. Secondly, courts require either that the testator have recited his mistake in the terms of the revoking instrument, or that the mistake be established by clear and convincing evidence. For example, when the testator made the original revocation, he must have erroneously noted that he was revoking the gift "because the intended recipient has died" or "because I will enact a new will tomorrow."
DRR may be applied to restore a gift erroneously struck from a will if the intent of the testator was to enlarge that gift, but will not apply to restore such a gift if the intent of the testator was to revoke the gift in favor of another person. For example, suppose Tom has a will that bequeaths $5,000 to his secretary, Alice Johnson. If Tom crosses out that clause and writes "$7,000 to Alice Johnson" in the margin, but does not sign or date the writing in the margin, most states would find that Tom had revoked the earlier provision, but had not effectively amended his will to add the second; however, under DRR the revocation would be undone because Tom was acting under the mistaken belief that he could increase the gift to $7,000 by writing that in the margin. Therefore, Alice will get $5,000. However, if Tom crosses out that clause and writes in the margin "$5,000 to Betty Smith" without signing or dating the writing, the gift to Alice will be effectively revoked. In this case, it will not be restored under the doctrine of DRR because even though Tom was mistaken about the effectiveness of the gift to Betty, that mistake does not affect Tom's intent to revoke the gift to Alice. Because the gift to Betty will be invalid for lack of proper execution, that $5,000 will go to Tom's residuary estate.
Election under the will
Also referred to as "electing to take against the will." In the United States, many states have probate statutes which permit the surviving spouse of the decedent to choose to receive a particular share of deceased spouse's estate in lieu of receiving the specified share left to him or her under the deceased spouse's will. As a simple example, under Iowa law (see Code of Iowa Section 633.238 (2005)), the deceased spouse leaves a will which expressly gifts the marital home to someone other than the surviving spouse. The surviving spouse may elect, contrary to the intent of the will, to live in the home for the remainder of his/her lifetime. This is called a "life estate" and terminates immediately upon the surviving spouse's death.
The historical and social policy purposes of such statutes are to assure that the surviving spouse receives a statutorily set minimum amount of property from the decedent. Historically, these statutes were enacted to prevent the deceased spouse from leaving the survivor destitute, thereby shifting the burden of care to the social welfare system.
Charles Vance Millar's will was notorious for offering the bulk of his estate to the Toronto woman who had the greatest number of children in the ten years after his death (the Great Stork Derby). Attempts to invalidate it by his would-be heirs were unsuccessful, and the bulk of Millar's fortune eventually went to four women.
Estate of Kidd involved a will found on a deceased Arizona prospector who left his entire $250,000 estate "for research or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death. I think in time there can be a photograph of a soul leaving the human at death."
Although most people are aware that they need a will, as many as 66% of Americans, according to Consumer Reports, don't have one. Among the notables who died either without a valid will or with no will at all are Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Howard Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rocky Marciano, Steve McNair, Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Cass Elliot, Sonny Bono, Tiny Tim, Karl Marx and Pablo Picasso.
The longest known legal will is that of Englishwoman Fredericka Stilwell-Cook. Probated in 1925, it was 1,066 pages, and had to be bound in 4 volumes; her estate was worth $100,000. The shortest known legal wills are that of Bimla Rishi of Delhi, India, and Karl Tausch of Hesse, Germany; each consisted solely of three words. 
Freedom of disposition
The conception of the freedom of disposition by will, familiar as it is in modern England and the United States, both generally considered common law systems, is by no means universal. In fact, complete freedom is the exception rather than the rule. Civil law systems often put some restrictions on the possibilities of disposal; see for example "Forced heirship".
Advocates for gays and lesbians have pointed to the inheritance rights of spouses as desirable for same-sex couples as well, through same-sex marriage or civil unions. Opponents of such advocacy rebut this claim by pointing to the ability of same-sex couples to disperse their assets by will. Historically, courts have been more willing to strike down wills leaving property to a same-sex partner for reasons such as incapacity or undue influence. See, for example In Re Kaufmann's Will 20 A.D.2d 464, 247 N.Y.S.2d 664 (1964), aff'd, 15 N.Y.2d 825, 257 N.Y.S.2d 941, 205 N.E.2d 864 (1965)
- administrator - person appointed or who petitions to administer an estate in an intestate succession.
- beneficiary - anyone receiving a gift or benefitting from a trust
- bequest - testamentary gift of personal property, traditionally other than money.
- codicil - (1) amendment to a will; (2) a will that modifies or partially revokes an existing or earlier will.
- decedent - the deceased (U.S. term)
- demonstrative legacy - a gift of a specific sum of money with a direction that is to be paid out of a particular fund.
- descent - succession to real property.
- devise - testamentary gift of real property.
- devisee - beneficiary of real property under a will.
- distribution - succession to personal property.
- executor/executrix or personal representative [PR] - person named to administer the estate, generally subject to the supervision of the probate court, in accordance with the testator's wishes in the will. In most cases, the testator will nominate an executor/PR in the will unless that person is unable or unwilling to serve.
- inheritor - a beneficiary in a succession, testate or intestate.
- intestate - person who has not created a will prior to death.
- legacy - testamentary gift of personal property, traditionally of money. Note: historically, a legacy has referred to either a gift of real property or personal property.
- legatee - beneficiary of personal property under a will, i.e., a person receiving a legacy.
- probate - legal process of settling the estate of a deceased person.
- specific legacy (or specific bequest) - a testamentary gift of a precisely identifiable object.
- testate - person who dies having created a will before death.
- testator - person who executes or signs a will; that is, the person whose will it is. The antiquated English term of testatrix was used to refer to a female but is generally no longer in standard legal usage.
- ^ Administration of Wills, Trusts, and Estates, p. 5
- Administration of Wills, Trusts, and Estates by Gordon W. Brown, Delmar Cengage Learning (ISBN 0766852814) (ISBN 978-0766852815)
- Michael Jackson's Will from The Smoking Gun
- Katharine Hepburn's Will from The Smoking Gun
- Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (1384 - 1858) available for download
- Download the wills of famous people from The UK National Archives' website.
- William Shakespeare's Will
- Jane Austen's Will
- Getting copies of UK wills made after 1858
- List of UK Regional Probate Registries - Regional Offices for probate information and to register the location of a Will and/or Executor