What Does a Last Will and Testament Look Like?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

What Does a Last Will and Testament Look Like?

By Cindy DeRuyter, J.D.

When you create a last will and testament, you are giving your loved ones a gift. By nominating someone as your personal representative and by documenting how you want your personal representative to distribute assets after you die, you can eliminate frustration and arguments about estate administration. Your state's laws dictate requirements for creating a valid last will and testament. In general, valid wills are in writing, include specific elements, and meet certain formalities. Beyond those requirements, a will does not need to be printed on any type of special paper or use any specific font or style.

Man signing documents on clipboard

Common Provisions in Wills

In general, wills are typewritten and include headings, such as "Will" or "Last Will and Testament." The person creating the will is the "testator", and that term is often included in the document.

Wills usually nominate one or more individuals or professional companies to serve as the testator's personal representative. The personal representative, called the executor or administrator in some states, is responsible for safeguarding estate assets, paying valid debts and taxes, and distributing assets as provided in the will. The will should state who inherits assets under the will.

Distribution may include special bequests "off the top" before dividing assets among and distributing them to residual beneficiaries.

When a parent of a minor child creates a will, it is also common for the will to designate whom the testator wants to serve as guardian for the child if both parents die prematurely or are otherwise unable to care for the child.

Legal Formalities

A valid will does not need to include fancy "legalese," nor does is it need to be on any special type of paper, use a fancy typeface, or be maintained in a special envelope.

Check your state's legal requirements for wills before creating your own will. With some limited exceptions for "holographic" wills, oral wills, or electronic wills—allowed under certain circumstances in some states—wills must be in writing, dated, and signed by the testator.

A valid will must identify the testator and must state that it is the testator's will. States have varying witness requirements, but many states require that two witnesses watch the testator sign his or her will. The witnesses must attest that they believe the testator was of sound mind and was not under undue influence. In some states, wills also require notary public signatures.

Possible Locations for Wills

When trying to determine whether a document was the testator's last will and testament, the location it was found in can be informative.

Some people choose to file their wills for safekeeping with their counties or states. More commonly, however, people keep wills in safe deposit boxes, in fire-proof safes or storage boxes, or in file cabinets with other important papers.

If you want to create your own will, it is very helpful to work with a licensed attorney in your state or use an online service provider. When you choose one of these options, you can be confident your will meets state requirements and that the document will be identifiable as your last will and testament after you die.

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.