How to Execute Wills

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

How to Execute Wills

By Larissa Bodniowycz, J.D.

With a few exceptions, wills that are not properly signed are not valid or enforceable. If your will is found invalid, the decisions you made in it about how your assets will be distributed will not be followed. Instead, default rules from state law will determine how your assets are distributed.

Woman helping a couple sign documents

Avoid this unfortunate outcome by following the laws in your state on how to execute a will. Executing a will means signing it. Each state has its own laws on how a will must be executed to be valid. These rules vary greatly between states so do not rely on the laws of another state.

You can find the signature requirements for your state in your state's statutes, usually in the probate chapter, by asking your attorney, or in the instructions from your online legal service provider. There are four key factors you want to find out: holographic will laws, rules for your signature, witness requirements, and notary requirements.

Your Signature

All states require that you sign your will or have someone sign the will on your behalf. If someone signs on your behalf, they must sign at your direction and usually in your presence.

You may also be required by your state's laws to sign, or have someone sign, your will while in the presence of witnesses and/or a notary. This means that signing ahead of time before your witnesses and/or notary arrive could render your will invalid. What constitutes "in the presence of" can vary by state. For example, in some states it is sufficient if the witnesses are in the general area and aware that you are signing, while in others, you must sign in their line of sight. The best practice is to sign at a table with all witnesses and, if applicable, a notary present.

Witness Requirements

The number of witnesses required for a will varies by state, but the majority require two witnesses. Your witnesses must also be qualified to serve. Certain people, such as beneficiaries or those who are under age 18 may be prohibited from serving as witnesses.

States also have laws about what constitutes validly witnessing a will. As noted, witnesses may be required to see you sign your will, or your acknowledgement or your signature might be enough. Witnesses might also be required to be in the room when each other signs as a witness. Witnessing rules tend to be very specific.

Notary Requirements

A notary public, often just called a “notary," is a professional that holds a license to serve as an impartial witness or administer oaths. A document that has been signed and stamped by a licensed notary is considered “notarized." Generally, a will does not need to be notarized to be valid.

Most, but not all states, allow self-proving affidavits to accompany wills. A self-proving affidavit is essentially a shortcut that allows a court to presume a will is valid unless someone comes forward and proves otherwise. Self-proving affidavits must be notarized.

Holographic Wills

A will that is 100% in your handwriting and signed by you is called a holographic will. Some states exempt holographic wills from the other will execution requirements, such as witnesses and being notarized. Other states do not consider holographic wills valid unless they follow all of the same requirements as other wills.

Even if your state only requires you to sign your holographic will, it is usually best to follow all the execution formalities because it is harder to prove that wills with no witnesses are authentic. For example, if a family member is unsatisfied with their share under your will, they might try to argue that the will is fraudulent. It will be harder for your executor and other family members to prove that it is authentic if it is only signed and not witnessed.

Signing your will properly and in the presence of the right people is vital to ensuring its validity. Take the time to learn the applicable laws in your state.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.