A legal will is a will that meets the requirements in state law for the will to be recognized by that state. Each U.S. state has its own rules about legal wills, though many states have similar rules. A legal will often looks like many other legal documents. To recognize a legal will, you will need to understand the basic requirements to make a will legal in your state.
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A legal will is almost always a written document. Every U.S. state will accept a legal will written on paper, and many states won't accept a will any other way. A few states accept nuncupative -- or oral -- wills that give away small estates and are made on the testator's deathbed, but even these must be written down soon after the death in order to be valid. Only Nebraska accepts a will in an electronic computer file. No state will accept a video will in place of a written will, but you may make a video will to supplement your written will if you choose.
In most U.S. states, a valid or legal will must contain certain minimum information. A legal will should state somewhere on it that it is the testator's will. It should also contain the date it was made. A legal will must also contain at least one phrase that leaves something to somebody, although the will does not have to give away the testator's entire estate in order to be legal. Most legal wills also name an executor or personal representative to manage the estate, as well as a guardian if the testator left behind minor children. However, these sections are not required for the will to be valid in any state.
A legal will should contain the signature of the testator. You will usually find the testator's signature at or near the end of the will. In most U.S. states, a written will must also have the signatures of two or more witnesses in order to be valid. About half of U.S. states recognize holographic wills, which do not have to have witnesses if they are written entirely in the testator's own handwriting. An attorney can tell you whether your state considers a holographic will a legal will. Also, a will may be notarized, but no state except Louisiana requires notarization to make a will legal, and a legal will may not use a notary in place of the required witnesses.
Since a legal will resembles so many other legal documents at first glance, knowing where to look for someone's last will and testament can make it much easier to recognize it when you see it. Most wills are kept in safe locations away from fire, flood and other damage where the testator would not be likely to lose the will or accidentally throw it away. For instance, the will may be in a safety deposit box or it may be in a fire safe. Some attorneys who make wills also keep an unsigned copy of the will in their files. Reviewing the copy will make it easier for you to identify the original legal will, which will probably look very similar. This copy may also include instructions about where to find the original will.