A will is a highly protected form of writing. The requirements for a valid will must not be casually regarded. With rare exception in Virginia, only the original of a will – not a copy – may be admitted to probate. To be admitted to probate a will must (1) be in writing, (2) signed by the testator (the person making the will) and (3) signed by two competent witnesses who were both present with the testator either to watch him sign it or to hear him acknowledge his signature. There is a popularly known exception for a will, which is entirely in the handwriting of the testator, called a “holographic” will. However, it is dangerous to rely on this exception because it is very narrowly applied by the courts.
The requisite formalities may not be strictly applied to wills made by persons in military service. Wills made by a person deemed of “unsound mind” or by a minor are not valid.
The most convenient and efficient manner of proving a will is for the will to include a notarized statement (an “affidavit”) reciting that the formalities were followed. If a will is presented with such an affidavit attached, it is said to be “self-proving.” Without the affidavit, the witnesses must appear personally before the clerk or may, in some cases, provide a written statement to prove the due execution of the will.
The will should name the executor (also called the “personal representative”) and, if there are children under the age of 18, a guardian for the person and property of each minor child. An executor is required to give bond at the time he/she is “qualified” (that is, when he/she is appointed). The bond is a personal pledge by the executor in the amount set by the clerk that he/she will perform the required duties of the office. In many cases a “surety” will be required. A surety is a contract from an insurance company to protect the beneficiaries and creditors of the estate. A surety policy requires annual premiums until the estate is settled. Increasingly, insurance companies are raising the requirements for issuing surety contracts making them more difficult to obtain. The will may waive the requirement for a surety. However, while the executor need not be a resident of Virginia, the surety requirement cannot be waived for a non-resident executor. This problem can be avoided by having the non-resident executor appoint a resident co-executor to serve.
The testator expresses his directions regarding the disposition of his estate in the will. The law allows the will to refer to a separate informal writing outside of the will to direct the disposition of items of tangible personal property, such as furniture and jewelry. It is important to note that the will has no effect on property placed in certain forms of ownership such as, for example, property in a living trust, in joint tenancy with survivorship, in accounts with pay-on-death designations, and life insurance and retirement funds with beneficiary designations. These forms of ownership supersede any provisions in a will.
Marriage, divorce and the birth of a child can affect the provisions of an existing will. Thus, in such situations, and upon a change in financial circumstances, the will should be reviewed. A change to a will, called a “codicil,” requires the same formalities as the will.
At the risk of sounding self-serving (admission: your author is an attorney), the do-it-yourself will and trust kits are not recommended. Dollars saved initially are often lost in fees and courts costs necessary to unravel self-made documents.
From "Amy & Dan Smith's Planning for Life" column appearing monthly in the Blue Ridge Leader, Loudoun County, VA.
The foregoing article contains general legal information only and is not intended to convey legal advice. For legal advice regarding estate planning, the reader should contact his/her lawyer.
Daniel D. Smith is a partner in the law firm of Smith & Pugh, PLC, 161 Fort Evans Road, NE, Suite 345, Leesburg, VA 20176. (Tel: 703-777-6084, www.smithpugh.com). He has practiced law in Loudoun County since 1980.