What Is a Holographic Will?

The validity of a handwritten will depends largely on the state.


Elissa Suh

Published April 15, 2019


  • A holographic will is a handwritten will

  • Typed wills are typically not considered holographic

  • Standard wills and holographic wills have different witness requirements

  • Not all states recognize holographic wills

A will is a legal document that explains how your property will be distributed after you die. A holographic will sounds like the opposite of what it is. Far from fancy or technologically advanced, it is a will at its most basic — written by hand.

Self-written wills are typically valid, as long as they’re properly witnessed and notarized, or proven in court, but when they’re written by hand it’s another matter. A holographic will dictates different requirements and can be difficult to prove, depending on the state.

Sometimes the handwriting can be hard to decipher, since the reason someone might hand-write a will to begin with is because they’re in a dire situation — trapped under a tractor or stranded alone in the wilderness, for example. But even when created out of necessity close to death, a handwritten will won’t always be permissible in a court of law.

Read on:

How do holographic wills work?

When you die, probate — the process of proving the will and executing it — begins. To be valid, a holographic will typically needs to be handwritten by the testator (the person making the will) in its entirety. Typed wills are usually not considered holographic wills, which should contain the same contents of a normal will. But if it’s written in haste, you just need to include the basics.

  • A declaration of who you are and an affirmation of the contents of the will and that you wrote them with a sound mind.

  • The intent to bequeath, or give, your property to beneficiaries. A beneficiary is who you want to receive your property or belongings. It doesn’t have to be a person; it can be a business or charitable organization. Most people name their spouse, but you don’t have to—except in “communal property” states, where your spouse is automatically entitled to your property, unless you say otherwise.

  • Your signature. Don’t forget to sign.

These are all necessary factors in distinguishing whether or not the handwritten document is in fact a last will and testament and not just a rough draft scribbled by the testator.

A standard will requires the signature of two witnesses in order to be recognized, and a notary's signature can help make sure the will isn't contested in court. However, the witness requirements for holographic wills vary according to state law. Generally a witness signature is not required to prove the validity of a handwritten will, but some states may need two disinterested witnesses — neutral parties with no stake in the testator’s property — who can testify that the handwriting belongs to him or her.

When a holographic will is not valid

A holographic will, like any other will, can be contested, by filing paperwork with the probate court. If the will is ultimately unrecognized, then the probate process continues as if there was no will or no beneficiary.

After the court declares the decedent (deceased person) intestate, the court will determine the rightful heirs of the estate. Usually each state will follow an intestate succession, which divvies up the estate to surviving kin based on a tiered classes. For example, spouse and children might be entitled to more, while cousins might receive less.

This can take a long time depending on the size of your estate and the litigiousness of any overlooked potential heirs. Having a solid will drawn up can help avoid any prolonged court battles.

States where holographic wills are valid

Witness requirements vary from state to state and local laws are constantly changing, so it is important to contact an estate lawyer or legal expert in the area to keep you up to speed.

The following states recognize holographic wills when they are made within that state:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

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States where holographic wills are not valid

Holographic wills are not enforceable in these states:

  • Alabama
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

The state codes for Indiana and Missouri do not mention holographic wills.

States where holographic wills are sometimes valid

A holographic will is permissible in some states depending on special circumstances. Under the foreign wills provision, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, South Carolina, and Washington accept a holographic will if it was legally drafted in another state where holographic wills are valid. For example, the holographic will you made when you lived in Pennsylvania is valid if you moved to Connecticut.

New York and Maryland only permit holographic wills for active members of the U.S. Armed forces. The handwritten will typically remains valid for up to a year after service.

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