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How to Make a Will in the District of Columbia FAQ

Written by: Catherine Hodder, Esq. , Senior Legal Writer
Reviewed by: Jordan Walker, J.D. , Legal Writer
Last updated May 15, 2024

A will is an important tool to distribute your assets and property, name guardians for your children, and appoint someone to handle your estate. But how do you make a valid will in the District of Columbia? This article answers your frequently asked questions about wills and Washington D.C. law.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What If I Die Without a Will in the District of Columbia?

If a decedent dies without a will in the District of Columbia, they die “intestate,” and a probate court follows the District of Columbia intestate succession laws to distribute their estate. Usually, the estate goes to the deceased person’s spouse, children, or blood relatives. So if they have stepchildren they have not adopted, or a significant other they did not marry, those loved ones will not benefit the decedent’s estate.

You might assume if you have a spouse, they will inherit your entire estate. But without a District of Columbia will, under the laws of intestacy of the D.C. code, they may only receive part of your estate. And if the court cannot find your next of kin, the District of Columbia keeps your estate.

What Does a Will Do?

A will is a legal document that is essentially your instructions on how to handle your estate when you die. In your last will and testament, you name the following:

  • Who manages your estate (your personal representative)
  • Who inherits your estate, meaning your real property (real estate) and personal property
  • Who cares for your minor children (a guardian)

Your personal representative files your will with the probate division of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and carries out the wishes in your will. Having a will streamlines the probate process for your loved ones. Because you have made these decisions, the D.C. court follows the terms of the will.

What Doesn’t a Will Do?

A will handles your personal property, real estate, and tangible assets, among other things. However, you have certain accounts and assets that do not transfer by your will, for example:

  • Bank accounts and investment accounts
  • Retirement accounts, pensions, 401(k)s, IRAs, and Keoghs
  • Life insurance policies and annuities
  • Property in a revocable or irrevocable trust

A bank account may have a transfer on death (TOD) designation, and insurance policies may have a beneficiary designation. For all these accounts and policies, check that you name a beneficiary and a backup beneficiary in case your primary beneficiary dies before you. Without a named beneficiary, these assets will go into your probate estate.

Who Can Make a Will in the District of Columbia?

To be eligible to make a will under District of Columbia law, a person making the will (called the testator) must meet the following requirements:

  • Age: You must be 18 years of age or older.
  • Sound and Disposing Mind: In the District of Columbia, you must have a sound and disposing mind when you sign your will. This means you are capable of executing a valid deed or contract. Another test is knowing what property you own and who your heirs are.

If you have concerns about your mental capacity, it is best to talk to an estate planning attorney for more information about whether you can make a will.

Does the District of Columbia Have a Statutory Will?

No, the District of Columbia does not provide a statutory will form. However, it is easy to make a will in the District of Columbia if you follow the legal requirements. You can create a legally valid customized will online that follows District of Columbia law. You can also hire an estate planning attorney.

What Types of Wills Does the District of Columbia Accept?

The District of Columbia only accepts certain types of wills.

  • Handwritten Will: A handwritten will (also called “holographic will”) is typically written entirely in the testator’s handwriting but does not have witnesses attest to the testator’s signature. The District of Columbia only permits handwritten wills if they have two witnesses and follow the execution requirements of the D.C. Code.
  • Oral Will: An oral will is also called a “nuncupative will.” The District of Columbia only allows it for someone in actual military or naval service or a mariner at sea. A testator may make an oral will during the testator’s last illness in front of at least two witnesses, and the oral will is reduced to writing within ten days of its making.
  • Electronic Will: An electronic will means different things in different states. An electronic will may refer to making and storing a will in a digital format or only to the method of witnessing a will through electronic means. The District of Columbia recently passed legislation for the creation and execution of electronic wills. The testator may sign the will electronically, and two witnesses must also be physically or electronically present when the testator electronically signs and acknowledges their will.

The most reliable type of will is a traditionally printed, signed, and witnessed will. Other types, especially handwritten or oral wills, can be challenged on the grounds of fraud or duress.

Can I Make My Own Will in the District of Columbia?

Yes. The District of Columbia allows you to make your own will. If you know what property you have and know who your beneficiaries are, you can make a will. You do not necessarily need an attorney to draft the document. However, if you have a significant estate and are concerned about estate taxes or have a child with disabilities and want a special needs trust, you should consult an estate planning attorney.

One advantage of making your own online will is that it is easy to update as your life changes. You do not have to add an amendment or codicil to your original will; instead, create a new will customized to your current situation. It is a good idea to check your will every five years or if you have a major life event such as a death in the family or divorce. You may want to change beneficiaries, bequests, or guardians.

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How Do I Make My Will Valid in the District of Columbia?

The District of Columbia has specific requirements to execute a will. They are not difficult, but failure to follow these laws may invalidate your will in the District of Columbia. Here are the following requirements:

  • Signature: The will must be signed by the testator or by someone directed to sign by the testator in the presence of the testator.
  • Witnesses: Two witnesses must attest your signature in your presence. You must either sign before the witnesses or tell them you have signed it (or directed someone to sign it in your presence) and state that it is your last will and testament. A witness who is also a beneficiary under the will or in the testator’s estate is an “interested witness.” Do not use an interested witness because any gift to them will become void over an amount of their intestate share if they are entitled to inherit under intestacy laws. Therefore, it is a good practice to use two disinterested witnesses.
  • Notary: The District of Columbia does not require a notary for your will to make it valid.
  • Self-Proving Affidavit: The District of Columbia does not provide a self-proving affidavit in which your witnesses swear before a notary that they saw you sign the will and that you signed it properly. The benefit of a self-proving affidavit is that your witnesses will not have to testify in court. Many people use a self-proving affidavit to show the testator’s intent to sign their will.

Can I Disinherit My Spouse in the District of Columbia?

Under District of Columbia law, you cannot disinherit your spouse or domestic partner. Unless they waive their right to the statutory share, they may receive a minimum statutory share, referred to as a survivor’s legal share. They may also receive a $15,000 homestead allowance, $10,000 of exempt property, such as household furniture, furnishings, or automobiles, and a reasonable family maintenance allowance during probate.

Can I Disinherit My Children in the District of Columbia?

Your children do not have a right to inherit from you. But if your child was born or adopted after you executed the will, they may get an omitted child’s share of your estate. The best way to disinherit a child in the District of Columbia is to specifically mention the child and state that you are disinheriting them.

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have in the District of Columbia?

A will is an essential legal document to have when you die. But there are other critical estate planning documents to have during your life to protect you and your family members.

  • Power of Attorney. Who will handle your financial matters if you are suddenly incapacitated? You can designate an “agent” in a power of attorney document to manage your finances, pay your bills, and care for your family. You decide what power to give your agent and when their authority begins and ends.
  • Health Care Directive. Similarly, who do you want to make medical decisions if you cannot communicate your wishes due to an injury or severe illness? Do you want life-prolonging measures if you face a terminal illness or end-of-life condition? A health care directive or living will allows you to name someone you trust to get medical information and help with health care decisions when you can’t. Your health care directive also lets you state your wishes for end-of-life care. With a health care directive, you make these difficult decisions so your loved ones do not have the burden of making them for you.

Fortunately, online estate planning templates make it easy to make a will and create additional estate planning documents in the District of Columbia.

Still not sure what estate planning tools you need?


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