|Part of the common law series|
|Legal history of wills
Joint wills and mutual wills
Will contract · Codicil
Holographic will · Oral will
Incorporation by reference
Insane delusion · Fraud
Lapse and anti-lapse
Ademption · Abatement
Satisfaction of legacies
Elective share · Pretermitted heir
Wills and conflict of laws
|Express · Resulting
Bare · Discretionary
Accumulation and Maintenance
Interest in possession
Charitable · Purpose · Incentive
Protective · Spendthrift
Life insurance · Remainder
Honorary · Asset-protection
Trusts and conflict of laws
|Intestacy · Testator · Probate
Power of appointment
Simultaneous death · Slayer rule
Laughing heir · Advancement
Disclaimer of interest · Inheritance tax
|Other common law areas|
|Contract · Tort · Property
Criminal law · Evidence
A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his estate and provides for the transfer of his property at death. For the devolution of property not disposed of by will, see inheritance and intestacy.
In the strictest sense, a "will" has historically been limited to real property while "testament" applies only to dispositions of personal property (thus giving rise to the popular title of the document as "Last Will and Testament"), though this distinction is seldom observed today. A will may also create a testamentary trust that is effective only after the death of the testator.
Any person over the age of majority and of sound mind can draft his or her own will without the aid of an attorney. Additional requirements may vary, depending on the jurisdiction, but generally include the following requirements:
After the testator has died, a probate proceeding may be initiated in court to determine the validity of the will or wills that the testator may have created, i.e., which will satisfied the legal requirements, and to appoint an executor. In most cases, during probate, at least one witness is called upon to testify or sign a "proof of witness" affidavit. In some jurisdictions, however, statutes may provide requirements for a "self-proving" will (must be met during the execution of the will), in which case witness testimony may be forgone during probate. If the will is ruled invalid in probate, then inheritance will occur under the laws of intestacy as if a will were never drafted. Often there is a time limit, usually 30 days, within which a will must be admitted to probate. Only an original will can be admitted to probate in the vast majority of jurisdictions – even the most accurate photocopy will not suffice.
There is no legal requirement that a will be drawn up by a lawyer, although there are pitfalls into which home-made wills can fall. The person who makes a will is not available to explain him or herself, or to correct any technical deficiency or error in expression, when it comes into effect on that person's death, and so there is little room for mistake. A common error (for example) in the execution of home-made wills in England is to use a beneficiary (typically a spouse or other close family members) as a witness – although this has the effect in law of disinheriting the witness regardless of the provisions of the will.
Some states recognize a holographic will, made out entirely in the testator's own hand. Contrary to popular opinion, the unique aspect of a holographic will is less that it is written by the testator and more that it need not be witnessed. A minority of states even recognize the validity of nuncupative wills, which are expressed orally. In England, the formalities of wills are relaxed for soldiers who express their wishes on active service; any such will is known as a serviceman's will.
A will may not include a requirement that an heir commit an illegal, immoral, or other act against public policy as a condition of receipt. In community property jurisdictions, a will cannot be used to disinherit a surviving spouse, who is entitled to at least a portion of the testator's estate. In England, a will may disinherit a spouse, but close relations, including spouses, excluded from a will may apply to the court for provision to be made for them at the court's discretion.
It is a good idea that the testator give his executor the power to pay debts, taxes, and administration expenses (probate, etc.). Warren Burger's will did not contain this, which wound up costing his estate thousands. This is not a consideration in English law, which provides that all such expenses will fall on the estate in any case.
Types of wills generally include:
Intentional physical destruction of a will by the testator will revoke it, through deliberately burning or tearing the physical document itself, or by striking out the signature. In most jurisdictions, partial revocation is allowed if only part of the text or a particular provision is crossed out. Other jurisdictions will either ignore the attempt or hold that the entire will was actually revoked. A testator may also be able to revoke by the physical act of another (as would be necessary if he is physically incapacitated), if this is done in his presence and in the presence of witnesses. Some jurisdictions may presume that a will has been destroyed if it had been last seen in the possession of the testator but is found mutilated or cannot be found after his or her death.
A will may also be revoked by the execution of a new will. Most wills contain stock language that expressly revokes any wills that came before them, however, because normally a court will still attempt to read the wills together to the extent they are consistent.
In some jurisdictions, the complete revocation of a will automatically revives the next most recent will, while others hold that revocation leaves the testator with no will so that his or her heirs will instead inherit by intestate succession.
In England and Wales, marriage will automatically revoke a will as it is presumed that upon marriage, a testator will want to review the will. A statement in a will that it is made in contemplation of forthcoming marriage to a named person will override this. Divorce, conversely, will not revoke a will, but will have the effect that the former spouse is treated as if they had died before the testator and so will not benefit.
Many jurisdictions exercise an equitable doctrine known as dependent relative revocation ("DRR"). Under this doctrine, courts may disregard a revocation that was based on a mistake of law on the part of the testator as to the effect of the revocation. For example, if a testator mistakenly believes that an earlier will can be revived by the revocation of a later will, the court will ignore the later revocation if the later will comes closer to fulfilling the testator's intent than not having a will at all. The doctrine also applies when a testator executes a second, or new will and revokes his old will under the (mistaken) belief that the new will would be valid. However, for some reason the new will is not valid and a court may apply the doctrine to reinstate and probate the old will, as the court holds that the testator would prefer the old will to intestate succession.
Before applying the doctrine, courts may require (with rare exceptions) that there have been an alternative plan of disposition of the property. That is, after revoking the prior will, the testator could have made an alternative plan of disposition. Such a plan would show that the testator intended the revocation to result in the property going elsewhere, rather than just being a revoked disposition. Secondly, courts require either that the testator have recited his mistake in the terms of the revoking instrument, or that the mistake be established by clear and convincing evidence. For example, when the testator made the original revocation, he must have erroneously noted that he was revoking the gift "because the intended recipient has died" or "because I will enact a new will tomorrow."
DRR may be applied to restore a gift erroneously struck from a will if the intent of the testator was to enlarge that gift, but will not apply to restore such a gift if the intent of the testator was to revoke the gift in favor of another person. For example, suppose Tom has a will that bequeaths $5,000 to his secretary, Alice Johnson. If Tom crosses out that clause and writes "$7,000 to Alice Johnson" in the margin, but does not sign or date the writing in the margin, most states would find that Tom had revoked the earlier provision, but had not effectively amended his will to add the second; however, under DRR the revocation would be undone because Tom was acting under the mistaken belief that he could increase the gift to $7,000 by writing that in the margin. Therefore, Alice will get $5,000. However, if Tom crosses out that clause and writes in the margin "$5,000 to Betty Smith" without signing or dating the writing, the gift to Alice will be effectively revoked. In this case, it will not be restored under the doctrine of DRR because even though Tom was mistaken about the effectiveness of the gift to Betty, that mistake does not affect Tom's intent to revoke the gift to Alice. Because the gift to Betty will be invalid for lack of proper execution, that $5,000 will go to Tom's residuary estate.
Also referred to as "electing to take against the will." In the United States, many states have probate statutes which permit the surviving spouse of the decedent to choose to receive a particular share of deceased spouse's estate in lieu of receiving the specified share left to him or her under the deceased spouse's will. As a simple example, under Iowa law (see Code of Iowa Section 633.238 (2005)), the deceased spouse leaves a will which expressly gifts the marital home to someone other than the surviving spouse. The surviving spouse may elect, contrary to the intent of the will, to live in the home for the remainder of his/her lifetime. This is called a "life estate" and terminates immediately upon the surviving spouse's death.
The historical and social policy purposes of such statutes are to assure that the surviving spouse receives a statutorily set minimum amount of property from the decedent. Historically, these statutes were enacted to prevent the deceased spouse from leaving the survivor destitute, thereby shifting the burden of care to the social welfare system.
Charles Vance Millar's will was notorious for offering the bulk of his estate to the Toronto woman who had the greatest number of children in the ten years after his death (the Great Stork Derby). Attempts to invalidate it by his would-be heirs were unsuccessful, and the bulk of Millar's fortune eventually went to four women.
Although most people are aware that they need a will, as many as 66% of Americans, according to Consumer Reports, don't have one. Among the notables who died either without a valid will or no will at all are: Ross Alexander, Fatty Arbuckle, Anura Bandaranaike, Madhav Prasad Birla, Sonny Bono, George Brent, Lenny Bruce, Jacob A. Cantor, Kurt Cobain, Russ Columbo, Sam Cooke, James Dean, Sandy Dennis, John Denver, Divine, Duke Ellington, Cass Elliot, Chris Farley, Redd Foxx, Mary Frann, James A. Garfield, Marvin Gaye, Ulysses S. Grant, Billie Holiday, Buddy Holly, Shemp Howard, Howard Hughes, Andrew Johnson, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ernie Kovacs, Harry Langdon, Bruce Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Peter Lorre, Jayne Mansfield, Rocky Marciano, Karl Marx, Steve McNair, Sal Mineo, Carmen Miranda, Keith Moon, Rosa Parks, Pablo Picasso, Tupac Shakur, Don Simpson, William Desmond Taylor, Sharon Tate, Tiny Tim, Ritchie Valens, Herve Villechaize, Barry White, and Jimmy Witherspoon.
The longest known legal will is that of Englishwoman Fredericka Stilwell-Cook. Probated in 1925, it was 1,066 pages, and had to be bound in 4 volumes; her estate was worth $100,000. The shortest known legal wills are that of Bimla Rishi of Delhi, India, and Karl Tausch of Hesse, Germany; each consisted solely of three words. 
The conception of the freedom of disposition by will, familiar as it is in modern England and the United States, both generally considered common law systems, is by no means universal. In fact, complete freedom is the exception rather than the rule. Civil law systems often put some restrictions on the possibilities of disposal; see for example "Forced heirship".
Advocates for gays and lesbians have pointed to the inheritance rights of spouses as desirable for same-sex couples as well, through same-sex marriage or civil unions. Opponents of such advocacy rebut this claim by pointing to the ability of same-sex couples to disperse their assets by will. Historically, courts have been more willing to strike down wills leaving property to a same-sex partner for reasons such as incapacity or undue influence. See, for example In Re Kaufmann's Will 20 A.D.2d 464, 247 N.Y.S.2d 664 (1964), aff'd, 15 N.Y.2d 825, 257 N.Y.S.2d 941, 205 N.E.2d 864 (1965)