The validity of a handwritten will depends largely on the state.
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, even when handwritten, as long as they’re properly witnessed and notarized, or proven in court. A handwritten will that is not witnessed or notarized 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 hand-write 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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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) died intestate, meaning that the person died without a will, the court will determine the rightful heirs of the estate. Usually each state will follow 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, while cousins may not end up receiving anything.
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.
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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:
Learn more about how to make a will in your state.
Holographic wills are not enforceable in these states:
The state codes for Indiana and Missouri do not mention holographic wills.
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.
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Elissa Suh is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about finance and insurance since 2019, with an emphasis in esate planning and mortgages. Her writing has been cited by MarketWatch, CNBC, and Betterment.
Elissa has a B.A. in Film Studies from Barnard College.
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