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What is a Will?

Wills are the most common way for people to state how their property and affairs should be distributed and handled after their deaths. A well-written will eases the transition for survivors by transferring property quickly and avoiding many tax burdens.

Wills vary from extremely simple, single-page documents to elaborate volumes, depending on the estate size and preferences of the person making the will. If a person dies without a valid will and did not make alternative arrangements to distribute property, a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults that give property to surviving relatives.

For other relevant legal definitions, visit the Estate and Probate Law Glossary in the FindLaw Legal Dictionary.

Will Requirements

Formal requirements for wills vary from state to state. Generally, the testator (one making the will) must be an adult of "sound mind," meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written. Some states allow a will to be in the testator's own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to use a typed or pre-printed document.

A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remains in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will.

Who Can Challenge a Will?

Not everyone can challenge a will. For instance, you can't challenge your cousin's will just because you believe his estate would be better off in the hands of another relative. In addition, you cannot contest a will just because you do not believe you received a fair share.

According to basic probate laws, only “interested persons" may challenge a will – and only for valid legal reasons as defined by your state laws.

Is a Lawyer Required?

State laws do not require the assistance of a lawyer when preparing a will. Because most wills only require instructions for the distribution of property and the naming of a guardian for minor children, most people can create a simple will by using software, ready-made forms or instructions from a book.

Some wills involve complex issues, however, so a person may benefit from the help of a lawyer when preparing their will. Attorneys often are retained when a will is contested, as well. A lawyer can provide assistance in situations that involve the distribution of a multi-million dollar estate, the creation of a non-standard trust, or in a situation where the testator plans to disinherit a spouse.

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