How to sign a will
About this series of articles
This article is one in a series about how to make your own will. A list of all articles in the guide can be found on this page.
Signing your will is not rocket science. But you do have to get it right.
A will was one of the very first legal documents. Kings and emperors were the first people to be concerned about who took over the spoils. Over a long time, systems and procedures have been refined. But today, the issues are the same as they were centuries ago.
When we make a will, the most important worry is “Will they do what I want?”. So our legal system has evolved where you get one chance, in one document, to say what happens after you are gone. Of course you can put the word about and you can write letters to people and you can leave notes. But that would only cause confusion, conflict and discontent. So the law says it will treat just one document as your final instructions: the latest version of your will. So that document becomes very important indeed.
So that everyone can be sure they are relying on the right document, simple rules have evolved for witnessing your intention. They are not proof against fraud. They do not totally prevent misunderstandings. But they do help everyone to be happy that regardless of whatever you write in your will, at least they are looking at the right document.
The process of signing a will and having witnesses confirm that they have seen you sign is called attestation.
How to sign your will
Make sure you date your will
You must date your will as well as signing it. Without a date, no-one can be sure that it is your latest will. On the face of it, a will that has not been dated is void. But it may be possible to persuade a judge to approve it if the same people benefit as would have benefitted if you had left no will (died intestate).
Use your normal signature
Even if you are no longer able to sign as you did do in earlier years (perhaps because your hand is less steady than it used to be), your witnesses will be able to confirm that the signature you provided was really written by you.
Sign your will at the end of the document
There should be no words after the signing and witnessing. You do not need to initial each page, or sign on a front cover.
You must be capable of understanding what is written in your will
If you are reading this article, you obviously are, so we will not go into that now.
Witnessing a will
You need not one, but two witnesses to your signature
The purpose of a witness is of course to have someone around who can confirm that he watched you sign. You need two witnesses because it helps to make sure at least one of them can be contacted and has not died or moved abroad. There is no rule against having two witnesses from the same family (not yours) but it is safer to have two unconnected people.
Witnesses should write their names clearly and not provide a signature
It is often thought that witnesses must “sign” their names (i.e. provide a signature). Long ago, when the rule was established, people would have assumed that signing was the same as writing their name. Today, we are used to banks requiring our signature to look the same every time we sign it, so most of us have developed a barely legible scrawl to identify us.
When a person witnesses a will, the most important aspect is that he can be found after your death, if needed. So we have to know who he is. That requires a legible name to be printed clearly, not a few sharp flicks of a pen. So when you ask your witnesses to help, ask them “Please write your name” not “Sign here”.
To emphasise, the witness should not provide an autograph, but rather print his name. Throughout this article, when we refer to a witness signing his name, we mean printing his name, not providing his unique signature.
Writing a name and address by hand also gives enough text to be able to identify the witness from his handwriting too, so helping to prevent fraud.
It is also necessary for a witness to add his address. Of course, the reason is also so that he can be found later, if necessary. So the address must also be legible.
Now we come to the part that causes most confusion. It is all about preventing fraud. You need two witnesses present at the same time, so that each one can confirm that he watched you sign or place your name on a document on a particular day and at a particular place. Each can also describe the general circumstances, as far as he remembers them.
The two witnesses must not only both see you sign, but they must also see each other sign (print their name). That way, they can later back up the story about who signed what and when. It ties everything together more tightly.
So what we get is a requirement for the testator and his two witnesses to be in the same room at the same time and for all three to watch each of the other two do his signing.
Unfortunately, most wills are drawn using a single cleverly drawn sentence to describe and confirm the attendance. Net Lawman wills cover the requirement using 21st century language.
Your witnesses should be satisfied that you are who you say you are, but they do not have to know you in any other way. It is often better to choose witnesses who would be able to recognise you, but otherwise know nothing about you.
Importantly, your witnesses must not be:
- related to you (or be the spouses or partners of relatives)
- any person who may benefit under your will (including a spouse or a partner or a close family member of a beneficiary)
- your executor, trustee or a guardian of your children
- under 18 years old
Whoever you ask to be a witness should understand the importance of what you are asking. The witnesses do not need to know anything about the contents of your will, or even that the document is a will, and not some other document. But we think it is best to tell them it is your will because that alone will let them know it is important.
A solicitor will witness your will and will be happy to wheel in some other person on his staff as your second witness, but he will charge for this service (usually nominally). He may also try to persuade you that he should draw a new will for you and advise you all about it. If you are at a loose end as to who to ask to be a witness, then a solicitor is a good option, albeit one that will cost a little.
Alternatively, neighbours might be a good choice of witness, or your accountant and a member of his or her staff (note that an accountant may charge like a solicitor would do). Your doctor may also agree to be a witness with another member of his practice.
Once signed and witnessed
After attestation, your will is complete and legally binding. Take a photocopy for each executor and give it to him now if he is not a beneficiary. If he is, just make sure he knows you have made a new will and tell him where you will keep it. Make sure you also have a photocopy in case the original is lost or destroyed.
Changing your will
You should never change an attested will. That includes adding new wording, adding notes, deleting, crossing out or editing in any way. Doing so will make it invalid. Instead, we suggest making a new will. Minor changes can be added using a document called a codicil, although it is often easier (and safer) to just draw a new will. Make sure your new will includes a paragraph revoking your old will (all Net Lawman wills do this).
Storing your will
You should keep your will safe. You may have somewhere at home where you can do this, or you could lodge it with your bank or a solicitor. You can also store your will at the Probate Registry (or the Probate and Matrimonial Office in Northern Ireland), where it will be kept securely. Although this service costs money, it does prevent anyone from administering your estate without following your will.
Wherever you store it, do make sure your executors know where they can find a copy of your will.
Some administrative points
It is a good idea to make sure your will is printed out in a way which places the signature and address of each witness on a single page together. You do not need to have all the signatures on a single page but having a signature on a page and an address on the next page is messy.
Neatly staple up your will in three staples down the left side of the sheets; or use some other sort of binding system which will show up any tampering with the pages. You don't need to print it on special paper.
On no account, should you attach any other document to your will, such as a letter or note or front cover. If you do, you may make your will void.
We recommend that you read about where to store your will next.
So as to encourage everyone to make a will, we provide some of our more straightforward ones absolutely free with no catches or conditions.
Just visit our library and choose the most suitable from the list of will templates. We offer nine templates in total that together cover thousands of possible variations of wishes. There will be one to suit your situation.
If you are in doubt as to which to choose,read about where to start when making a will.
Please note that the information provided on this page:
- Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
- Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
- Does not create a contractual relationship;
- Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
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