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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.
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 Indiana, the laws regarding the valid execution and witnessing of a Will are set forth in the Indiana Code, Title 29 Probate, Article 1 Probate Code, Chapter 5 Execution and Revocation of Wills, Sections 29-1-5-1 through 29-1-5-3.1.
In Indiana, any person of sound mind who is eighteen (18) years of age or older, or who is younger and a member of the armed forces, or of the merchant marine of the United States, or its allies, may make a Will. (See: Section 29-1-5-1) “Sound mind and memory” generally means someone who has not been deemed incompetent in a prior legal proceeding.
A Will must be in writing. (See: Section 29-1-5-1) The Will must be 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 29-1-5-3)
In Indiana, any person who is “competent” may witness a Will. (See Section 29-1-5-2) Generally, it is recommended that the witnesses to the Will be “disinterested”, which means that they are not beneficiaries of the Will. In Indiana, the signing of a Will by an interested witness does not invalidate the Will but the gift to the witness is void unless there are at least two disinterested witnesses to the Will. If an interested witness would be a beneficiary if the testator died intestate the witness will be entitled to receive the gift up to the value they would have received had the Will not been established. (See: Section 29-1-5-2)
If a Will’s authenticity is unchallenged it may be probated in a simplified procedure if it has been self-proven. Witnesses to a self-proven Will are not required to testify in court because the court automatically accepts a self-proven Will as authentic. In Indiana, a Will may be made self-proven by attaching a “self-proving clause” to the will that is signed by both the testator and the witnesses. In the clause the witnesses must attest to the authenticity of the Will and of the Testator’s competency to make the Will. (See: Section 29-1-5-3.1)
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.