Definition of a Legal Will

By Teo Spengler

A will -- also called a last will and testament -- is a document describing what you want to happen to your estate when you die. In a will, you name your heirs, a guardian for your minor children and also an executor for your will -- the person to collect and distribute your assets. However, a will is only enforceable if it complies with the probate laws of your state.

Competent Testator

You must be competent and of legal age to make a valid will. If you are underage -- under 18 in most states -- the court distributes your property according to your state's intestate laws regardless of whether you write a will. The courts consider you competent -- also termed "of sound mind" or "having testamentary capacity" -- if you understand that you are making a will that will distribute your property at your death. Neither eccentricities nor drug or alcohol use render you incompetent as long as you have testamentary capacity at the time you sign the will.

Proper Execution

Execution of a will means the will-signing procedure required by your state. In most states, probate laws regulate the execution of your will much more than the substance. You can likely leave your entire estate to your pet turtle without running afoul of the law, but if you neglect the witnessing requirements, your will is invalid. All states require that you sign your will before at least two of-age witnesses, and many require impartial witnesses -- people not named as heirs under your will. States impose different execution requirements for other types of wills, such as international wills or holographic wills.

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Testamentary Intent

In order for your will to be valid, it must express your intentions for the distribution of your property, not somebody else's intentions. When heirs challenge a will claiming undue influence, fraud or mistake, they are essentially claiming that the will does not represent your free choices. Undue influence means that someone in a confidential position improperly pressured you into making or omitting devises. Fraud means that someone tricked you, and mistake means that you were ignorant of critical facts when you wrote the will, not knowing, for example, of the existence of a new grandchild.

Revocation

You can freely change or revoke a last will and testament during your lifetime, and the courts will not enforce a revoked will. A new provision (termed "codicil") added to a will alters or eliminates a bequest, and a new will supersedes the old. It is also effective revocation to state that you revoke the will, then to take some step toward destroying the will, like tearing it up or burning it.

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Last Will & Testament of the Terminally Ill
 

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Legal Will Advantages & Disadvantages

A legal will is a document that details someone’s last wishes. When the person passes away, the probate court that oversees the decedent’s estate will use a valid will to distribute the estate property. For a will to be valid it must conform to the drafting requirements provided by the state’s probate code. Probate codes do vary, so when drafting a will be sure that yours conforms to your state’s standards. Consider using an online document provider or an attorney to ensure that any will you draft follows your state’s requirements.

Laws on Wills in Pennsylvania

A will is a legal document that helps you to organize your affairs before you die, and allows you to leave your assets to the people you designate as your beneficiaries. If you die without a will, your assets will be distributed according to default Pennsylvania laws, rather than to the people you chose. In Pennsylvania, the laws in the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes Title 20 – Decendents, Estates and Fiduciaries govern wills.

How Can I Make My Own Will Legal?

A valid will assures you that, upon your death, your property passes as you direct -- not according to government statutes. In most states, your choice of heir is unrestricted, although a few jurisdictions require provision for minor children. While most states do not mandate specific language to validate a will, they do vary on exact procedural requirements for last testaments. The general requirements include an of-age testator (18 or older), clear testamentary intent and two inscribing witnesses. Refer to the specific laws of your state and consider consulting a lawyer to ensure your will meets the jurisdictional requirements for legality.

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