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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 Pennsylvania, the laws regarding the valid execution and witnessing of a Will are set forth in the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes; Title 20 Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries, Sections 2501 through 3132.
In Pennsylvania, any person eighteen (18) years of age and of sound mind may make a Will. (See: Section 2501) "Sound mind" generally means someone who has not been deemed incompetent in a prior legal proceeding.
A Will must be in writing and signed by the testator. If the testator can only sign by a mark, or cannot physically sign his name he may direct another party to do so, each must be witnessed by two witnesses. (See: Section 2502) All Wills signed by a mark or by a person other than the testator shall be proved by the oaths or affirmations of two competent witnesses. (See: Section 3132)
Unless it is signed by a mark, or by another person, 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. To self-prove a Will the testator and the witnesses must swear in an affidavit before a notary to the authenticity of the Will. The affidavit should be part of the Will or attached to it. (See: Section 3132)
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified wills lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a local wills attorney to discuss your specific legal situation.