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A Last Will and Testament is one of the most important legal documents a person can create during his or her lifetime. If a person dies without a Will they are said to have died “intestate” and state laws will determine how and to whom the person’s assets will be distributed.
If a person dies without a Will the beneficiaries can not dispute the court’s distribution of that person’s estate under the intestacy laws. Even if that person expressed different wishes verbally during their lifetime the statutes control the distribution. With a valid Will, a person can legally determine how their property will be distributed… and to whom. Most intestacy statutes distribute a deceased person's assets between a surviving spouse and their children or to only the children if there is not a spouse. If there are no surviving children the assets then are generally distributed to extended family members.
A Will must meet the legal requirements set forth by the state in order for it to be valid. Most states will also accept a Will that was executed in another state if the document is a valid Will under that state’s law. The general requirements for a valid Will are usually as follows: (a) the document must be written (meaning typed or printed), (b) signed by the person making the Will (usually called the “testator” or “testatrix”, and (c) signed by two witnesses who were present to witness the execution of the document by the maker and who also witnessed each other sign the document.
In Washington, DC, the laws regarding the valid execution and witnessing of a Will are set forth in the District of Columbia Code Annotated, Division 3 Decedents’ Estates and Fiduciary Relations, Title 18 Wills, Chapter 1 General Provisions, Sections 18-102 through 18-104.
In DC, any person eighteen (18) or more years of age who is of sound mind may make a Will. (See: Section 18-102) “Sound mind” generally means someone who has not been deemed incompetent in a prior legal proceeding.
A Will must be in writing, signed by the testator and by two witnesses. If the testator cannot physically sign his name he may direct another party to do so. This party may not be one of the witnesses. Each witness must sign the Will in the testator’s presence. (See: Section 18-103)
In DC, any person who is credible may be a witness to a Will. Generally, it is recommended that the witnesses to the Will be “disinterested”, which means that they are not beneficiaries of the Will. In DC, a Will is not made invalid because of an interested witness, but any gift to a witness is void, unless the interested witness is an heir to the testator. The interested witness then must forfeit the portion of the gift that exceeds the value they would have received if the testator had died intestate.
(See: Section 18-104)
At this time Washington, DC does not allow a Will to be made self-proven.
Hopefully these guidelines have helped make your estate planning decisions easier. For information regarding your specific circumstances you should contact an local wills attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.