Requirements for a Legal Will

by Kristin Shea
The testator’s signature is one requirement of a legal will.

The testator’s signature is one requirement of a legal will.

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A will is a legal document subject to specific legal requirements. If you fail to meet one of the requirements in executing your last will, a court may determine that the will is invalid at the time it is probated. An invalid will is tantamount to no will. If your will is considered invalid, you are considered to have died "intestate." Each state has laws governing the execution of a will. Be sure to review your state’s laws before executing your own will.

Of Sound Mind

Unhappy beneficiaries may challenge a will, claiming that the testator was “not of sound mind” when he wrote the will. You may have watched this familiar Hollywood plot on a movie screen, but this real-life drama is not uncommon in courtrooms around the country. The testator is generally considered to be of sound mind if he is legally competent, and can comprehend the nature of property and that the will distributes that property. The language may differ in different state statutes, but this is a basic legal requirement in every state.

Age of Majority

The testator must reach a statutorily defined minimum age to write a valid will. In most states, this minimum age is 18 years old. Some states may have provisions that address the emancipation of a child -- through marriage, for example -- who is younger than the age of majority.

Signature

The testator must sign her will in front of witnesses, and must meet the requirements enumerated in the previous sections -- be of sound mind and age of majority -- at the time of the signature.

In Writing

A will must be in writing. Most wills are generated on a computer. However, some states permit the testator to write a will by hand. Those states that allow handwritten wills generally require that the document be in the testator’s handwriting.

Witnesses

The witnesses must attest to the testator’s signature on the will. Specific requirements regarding witnesses vary from state to state -- often two, sometimes three, witnesses are usually required. In some states a witness cannot be a beneficiary. In most states, the witnesses and testator must sign in sight of each other.

Codicils

A codicil amends the original will. A testator can add to, remove from or otherwise change a will through a codicil. Codicils have the same requirements as the original will, and the codicil must refer to the original will. If, however, you plan to make extensive changes to your will, consider whether executing a new will is a more appropriate choice than a codicil.