So-called do-it-yourself are wills that individuals create themselves, usually with the aid of self-help legal literature. There are numerous guides, form books, websites, and fill-in-the-blank literature in the marketplace geared for non-lawyers. This material purports to help you create a valid will and avoid the costs of hiring an attorney to prepare a will for you. While this may be true in some cases, there is much to be cautious about. Mainly, the consequences of preparing a do-it-yourself will can be potentially devastating. If you die and your will is declared to be invalid, you will not be around to explain what you had intended to accomplish in your will. Instead, a probate court will either interpret your will or distribute your property according to the state intestacy scheme. Keep in mind that your will is an important legal document. If it is not prepared and executed according to state law, your entire will can be set aside by a probate court. Additionally, just about anyone who envisions an alternative distribution of your estate can contest a do-it-yourself will. If it does not meet some very stringent tests mandated by state law, the court can disregard your do-it-yourself will.
Oral wills are those whose contents and terms are merely spoken to a witness or witnesses, but not written down. There is great potential for fraud or even simple misunderstanding in oral wills. In most cases an “oral will” is only recognized by a probate court when made by members of the armed services or merchant marine in active service in time of conflict. Oral wills are not uncommon in situations in which a person feels he or she does not have time to prepare a written will and have it properly executed.
Deathbed wills are those created and executed when the testator is facing imminent death. These wills may be perfectly valid and binding, but the closer to the testator’s death the will is prepared the more likely it is to be challenged. The contest is usually based on a premise that the testator lacked sufficient mental capacity or was subject to undue influence. As previously stated, challenges can lead to costly and protracted will contests.
A deathbed will can potentially lead to errors. Its hasty preparation can be such that the will may not distribute the property in the manner that the testator intended. Hasty preparation can also fail to take advantage of some features that can reduce or eliminate the Federal Estate Tax. It is also more likely that the will would be found invalid because it does not conform to some legal requirement. These are some of the reasons many lawyers urge their clients or potential clients to create and execute their wills while they are still of sound mind and body.
A holographic will is one that you have written yourself. They are generally handwritten, although some states may allow for a holographic will to be created on a typewriter or with word processing software. These kinds of wills are not allowed in some states, but other states permit this kind of informal will. In states that permit them, the laws relating to holographic wills can be very specific or restrictive. For example, California requires that you write all material provisions entirely by hand and that you must sign your holographic will. On occasion, a holographic will is better than no will at all. In cases where the holographic will creates an ambiguity or an unintended result, it may have been better to have no will at all.
You can help simplify the probate process by adding to your will the affidavits (sworn statements) of the witnesses who saw you signing your will. When these affidavits are included with a will, it is sometimes called a “self-probating will.” In the affidavits, the witnesses state that they saw you execute or sign the will, that you asked them to be witnesses to the will, that you appeared mentally competent at the time, and you acted voluntarily. Without these affidavits, the process is more complicated and lengthy. In those cases, the executor would usually need to contact the original witnesses and have them appear in probate court (if they can). Before the personal representative or executor can even file your will in probate court, the witnesses would usually appear in court (or sometimes provide an AFFIDAVIT) to state the circumstances surrounding the execution of the will. This TESTIMONY helps to “prove” that the will is genuine.
Probate courts usually permit your will to be filed along with the affidavits, without the need to summon witnesses or obtain new affidavits. The court then gives notice to other heirs at law who are given a specific amount of time to file any objections to the will being admitted to probate. If any of these choose to challenge your will, the probate court is more likely to require your witnesses to come into court (if they are still available) to TESTIFY about the circumstances in which your will was signed. In some states, self-authenticating affidavits are not accepted in situations where the testator dies shortly after the will is signed, or the will was not executed with the assistance of a licensed attorney.
A LIVING WILL is something of a misnomer. It does not direct how your property is to be disposed of after you die. Rather, it is a document that specifies the general kinds of medical care you would want— or not want—in the event you became unable to communicate with your health care providers. Living wills are sometimes known as “medical directives” or “medical declarations.”