What is a holographic will?

The validity of a handwritten will depends largely on the state

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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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, even when handwritten, as long as they’re properly witnessed and signed or proven in court. A handwritten will that is not witnessed is considered a holographic will. Not all states accept holographic wills.

Sometimes a handwritten will can be hard to decipher, since the reason someone may handwrite a will to begin with might be 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.

Key takeaways

  • A holographic will is a handwritten will that is signed by the testator but not by witnesses.

  • Standard wills and holographic wills have different witness requirements.

  • Not all states recognize holographic wills.

How do holographic wills work?

When you die, the probate process 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.

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Wills typically contain:

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

  • The intent to bequeath, or give, your property to the beneficiaries of your will: Generally, 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. Make sure that in addition to the primary beneficiary, you also choose a contingent beneficiary. Most people name their spouse, but you don’t have to—except in “community property” states, where your spouse is usually automatically entitled to your share of the property.

  • Your signature: Don’t forget to sign your will.

These will help distinguish 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 making it self-proved with a notary's signature can help make sure the will isn't tied up 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 call for two disinterested witnesses — neutral parties with no stake in the testator’s property — who can testify that the handwriting belongs to the testator.

→ Learn more about requirements of a valid will

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.

Next the court will determine the rightful heirs of the estate using state intestacy law, which divvies up the estate to surviving next-of-kin based on blood relation. For example, spouse and children might have first claim to an inheritance, while cousins may not end up receiving anything at all.

This can take a long time depending on the size of your estate and the litigiousness of any overlooked potential heirs. Even a simple will, as long as it's solid, 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

  • South Dakota

  • Tennessee

  • Texas

  • Utah

  • Virginia

  • West Virginia

  • Wyoming

→ Learn how to make a will in your state

States where holographic wills are not valid

Holographic wills are not enforceable in these states:

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

→ Learn more about what makes a will invalid

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, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington accept a holographic will if it was legally drafted in another state where holographic wills are valid. For example, if you made a proper holographic will when you lived in California, it may deemed valid after you move to Connecticut by their courts.

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.

→ Learn more about other types of wills

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