Each state has its own laws on what makes a will valid, so you should always double check with state law to ensure you meet all the requirements. One universal rule is that the person creating the will, the testator, must sign it. Typically, signing your will must also be witnessed in some capacity, but how many witnesses you need and who qualifies to witness depends on your state. An invalid will could cause problems for your loved ones, especially if not having a will means that your estate goes to unintended recipients.
For a state-by-state breakdown of will requirements, read our guide to making a will in your state.
What’s considered a legal will?
Most state laws specify that a will must be in writing. The validity of oral or nuncupative wills is restricted to narrow circumstances. Wills are commonly typed, though a handwritten will can be valid as long as it follows signature and witness requirements for a will in your state (more on that next). Handwritten wills that aren't signed by any witnesses — holographic wills — are only accepted in certain states.
In order for your will to be a legal last will and testament and not just any old document, it also needs to contain testamentary intent, or language explicitly announcing that you want to give away your assets when you die.
Your will should include what property you own and the names of your beneficiaries who should receive it. While you can name just about any person, business, or organization as a beneficiary, you may have a difficult time writing certain individuals out of a will, like a child or your spouse (especially if you live in a community property state, where your spouse automatically owns half your estate.) If you need to write someone out of your will, you may want to seek legal advice from an estate planning attorney.
You can also appoint an executor or personal representative to carry out your wishes, but failing to name someone won’t invalidate your will.
Learn more about what to include in a will
Does a will have to be dated?
It can be a good idea to date the will when you sign it, even when it’s not explicitly required by state law, so the court and your future beneficiaries know when it was executed. Including a date in your will can be helpful in providing more context if there is another version of your will, or if there are issues and someone wants to contest the will.
Requirements for the testator
In many states you need to be at least 18 years old to write a valid will, but you can write a will as young as 14 in some states or if you're an emancipated minor. Regardless of your age, you may be able to make a will in some states if you’re married or a member of the armed forces.
You also need to be of "sound mind" when you sign your will, though each state may use a slightly different term or definition for what constitutes being of sound mind. The general idea is that you must be creating the will of your own volition — and not under pressure from potential beneficiaries — and you must be mentally able to understand what you're doing by signing the will. You may also see this referred to as testamentary capacity. For individuals who are mentally incapacitated, there are likely limits on when they can create a will or who can legally create a will for them.
Signature and witness requirements for a will
A will typically need to be signed by the testator and witnesses in order to be legally valid. State law may have a provision in place to accommodate a testator who isn’t able to physically write out their signature. For instance, the will may still be valid if they leave a “mark,” or if someone else who represents them signs on their behalf.
Many states — though not all — require you to have witnesses when you sign your will.(Pennsylvania is one state that doesn’t require witnesses.) The most common requirement is for two witnesses to sign your will, but who’s eligible to witness depends on where you live. Your witnesses often need to be at least 18 years old and of sound mind, but exact language varies. Witnesses generally must understand their duty, which is that they are witnessing the signing of the will, and that they may be called by a court in the future to testify to this fact.
Commonly, your witnesses should be “disinterested” parties, meaning they aren’t your beneficiaries and won’t receive material gain by having you create this will. Your can may still be valid if you have a beneficiary to serve as a witness, but in many states they may have to forfeit some or all of their inheritance if there aren’t any disinterested witnesses.
Learn more about how to witness a will.
Should you notarize your will?
It isn't necessary to notarize a will as long as you follow the rest of your state's laws to create a valid will. However, wills must be proved in court during probate before their terms can be carried out. You can speed this process along by including a self-proving affidavit, which requires notarization; it must be signed by two witnesses in the presence of a notary.
Having a self-proved will can also help prevent someone from contesting your will, which happens when someone challenges its authenticity, perhaps because they want different assets than what is bequeathed to them in the will.
How long is a will valid for?
Wills do not expire, and they remain valid until you revoke or change it. If you make changes to your will, like by adding a codicil, then you’ll have to go through the process of re-signing and re-witnessing it according to the legal requirements in your state to ensure its validity again.