Everyone puts off making a will. So once you’ve actually done the heavy lifting of actually making one—including deciding who you want to inherit your property, who you want to serve as your executor, and who to name as guardian for your children—feel free to give yourself a hearty pat on the back.
There’s just one thing: You’re not done yet.
A will, unlike almost any other legal document, must be signed (executed) in a special little ceremony before it is valid. Why? Because unlike other legal documents, if there’s ever a dispute about what it means, the person who wrote it won’t be there to explain what he or she intended. So over the centuries, a ritual has grown up around the signing of a will. It entails a series of safeguards to make sure that the document is genuine, that it says what you want it to say, and that you knew what you were doing.
It’s not hard to sign a will correctly, in a way that will ensure that it will be accepted as valid later. But unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for will-writers—or their lawyers—to make mistakes in the will-signing process, potentially invalidating a will. Here is how to make sure your will is a valid, binding legal document.
Before you do anything else, sit down and read the document slowly and carefully. Do this before you gather with witnesses to actually sign the will—you can’t pay careful attention if you are distracted or feel hurried. Make sure that you understand everything the document says and that it reflects your wishes. Check the spelling of everyone’s name. If you left property to people in percentages (or fractions), add them up to make sure they equal 100 (or 1). Make sure that all the pages are numbered correctly and that there aren’t any big blank spaces.
If anything needs to be changed, make your corrections and print out a new, clean copy of the document. Never cross out or add any language with a pen, or cover anything with correction fluid. The document should be perfect.
Every will-signing ceremony needs at least two witnesses, who will watch you sign your will and then sign it themselves. If you’re signing the will at an attorney’s office, the attorney will probably bring in witnesses—employees of the law firm or someone who works next door, for example. That’s usually fine.
If you’re recruiting your own witnesses, be aware that not just anyone will do. For starters, witnesses must be adults, at least 18 years old. It’s also best to pick witnesses who:
A will doesn’t have to be notarized to be valid. But in most states, you’ll want to add a “self-proving affidavit” to your will, which must be signed by your witnesses and notarized.
In the affidavit, your witnesses swear that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to have the mental capacity necessary to make a valid will. After your death, the self-proving affidavit simplifies the process of getting your will admitted to probate after your death because your witnesses won’t have to submit further statements or come to court to testify; the affidavit will do the job.
Learn more about self-proving affidavits, including which states authorize them.
If you sign your will in a lawyer’s office, the lawyer will provide a notary public. If you’re arranging this part on your own, you’ll need to find a notary. You can search for one online, or you may be able to find one at a bank, real estate office, or package-mailing service. If you cannot go to a notary, look for a "mobile" notary who can come to you (for an extra fee). Remote notarization may also be available in some states—call ahead about this option. Read more about getting your documents notarized during the coronavirus crisis.
Everyone—you, witnesses, notary—should be in the same room for the signing ceremony. If you’re not, it might invalidate the will, depending on how strict your state’s law is. If everyone isn’t already acquainted, they should be introduced to each other. As a result of COVID-19, some states may relax their rules about this requirement, allowing witnesses to sign within a short time after you sign. If you need this kind of accommodation, ask a lawyer to explain the options in your state.
When you have your witnesses gathered, it’s good to start by explaining why this ritual is important. Witnesses have a crucial role and should be aware of it. You should tell the witnesses that you are asking them to witness your will. The witnesses don’t need to know what’s in the will—they just need to know that the document is your will. You should also briefly explain the function of the self-proving affidavit.
State that you have carefully read and understand the will, that it fully reflects your wishes about how you want to leave your property, and that you have made the will freely and without pressure from anyone. It may sound silly to make these formal statements out loud but do it anyway. It’s all part of the ritual, and it could prevent a court argument later.
In the presence of the witnesses, put your initials at the bottom of every page except the last, on which you will put your entire signature. Use blue ink, to make it easy to tell the difference between the original document and photocopies. Sign as you do other important documents, and use the form of your name that the will uses. For example, if your will begins, “I, Susan J. Humphrey, declare that this is my will…” then don’t sign your will “S.J. Humphrey.” Along with your signature, write the date and city where you’re signing.
In your presence, each witness should initial every page, just as you did (and also in blue ink). They also sign the “attestation” at the end of the document, which states that they saw you sign the document and that you appeared to do so of your own free will, and put down their addresses.
Before your witnesses sign the self-proving affidavit, the notary may put them under oath; the notary should know what procedure is required by state law. The notary will then ask the witnesses to sign the self-proving affidavit. You can also ask the notary to ask the witnesses to say, out loud, that they understand and agree to each of the points in the affidavit—for example, that they know this document is your will, that they know they are being asked to act as witnesses to your signature, and so on. How formal you want to be depends on how worried you are that someone might someday challenge this will. The more concerned you are about a potential challenge, the more ritual you want.
If the self-proving affidavit isn’t part of the will itself, you will also sign it, under oath and in the presence of the witnesses and the notary.
When everyone else has signed, the notary signs the affidavit and stamps it with an official notarial stamp (or seal). The notary also notes the event in his or her record book.
Now that you’ve gone through the whole will-signing ceremony and have a legally binding document, don’t lose it! Put it in a safe place, and make sure your executor knows where to find it when the time comes.
And give yourself another pat on the back. You’ve taken an important step to take care of your family.