The process of signing a Will and having witnesses confirm that they have seen you sign is called attestation.
Signing your Will is not rocket science. But you do have to get it correct.
Identifying your last Will
The primary purpose of a Will is to make sure that your property and personal possessions are passed on after your death as you want.
Within it you can also appoint guardians for your children and set out your general wishes for your funeral.
While you could tell people you trust what you want or write letters, those things might cause your loved ones confusion and discontent.
So the law treats just one document as your final instructions: the latest version of your Will.
So that everyone can be sure they are relying on the last version, simple rules have evolved for witnessing your intention. They are not proof against fraud. They do not totally prevent misunderstandings. But they do help make sure everyone is happy that your Will contains your last wishes.
How to sign your Will
Make sure you date your Will
You must date your Will as well as signing it.
Although without a date it is not void, the potential issue is that no-one can be sure that it is your latest Will (your last Will made).
That leaves it open to challenge in court - perhaps on the basis that another Will was later written. If any other Will is found that has been dated, proving that the undated one was written later may be difficult.
There have been cases where a judge has been persuaded to approve an undated Will - often where 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
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
A lack of mental capacity is one of the most common grounds on which Wills are challenged - far more so than it wasn't witnessed properly.
The risk of a claim of a lack of mental capacity can be reduced by recording a conversation with someone else about your intentions (such as on a video call) or by choosing a witness who has medical knowledge to be able to assert that you are of sound mind.
Witnessing a Will
You need not one, but two independent witnesses to your signature
The purpose of a witness is of course to have someone around who can confirm that they watched you sign.
You need two independent witnesses present when you sign 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 but it is safer to have two unconnected people.
Witnesses should write their names clearly, not provide an autograph
It is often thought that witnesses must sign their names (make an autograph like they might do to prove their identity on a cheque).
When the rule was established, people would not have differentiated between writing their name and signing it.
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 they can be found after your death. To know who they are we need a legible name to be printed clearly, not a few sharp flicks of a pen. When you ask your witnesses to help, ask them to write their name, not sign.
To emphasise, the witness should not sign an autograph, but rather print their name. When we refer to a witness signing their name, we mean printing their name, not providing a unique signature.
A witness must also add a legible address. Of course, the reason is so that they can be found later, if necessary. A telephone number might also be recorded.
Writing a name and address by hand has an additional advantage. It gives enough text to be able to identify the witness from their handwriting too, so helping to prevent fraud.
If a witness does provide a signature as well as a printed name and address, the Will would still be valid. In order to reduce the possibility of mistakes, most Wills nowadays also include space for the witnesses to scrawl their mark.
The two witnesses must also see each other sign
The two witnesses must be physically present at the same time, so that each one can confirm that they 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 they remember 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.
The legal requirement is for the testator and the two witnesses to be in the same room at the same time and for all three to watch each of the other two sign.
Who can be witnesses?
Legally, the only qualification for your witnesses is that both are over 18 years of age (16 in Scotland). Since both must see you signing your will, an implied qualification is that neither is blind.
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. A stranger can be a witness to your Will.
It is often better to choose independent people as witnesses - who would be able to recognise you, but otherwise know nothing about you.
A family member can be a witness to your Will. An executor, trustee or guardian can also be a witness, as can someone who is a beneficiary under the Will (or a beneficiary's spouse or civil partner).
However, a beneficiary under the Will who also acts as a witness (or their spouse or civil partner) loses the right to inherit.
The best people to ask to be witnesses
It is wise not to choose people close to you to be witnesses because doing so may strengthen claims once you die either that you were not sound of mind and/or that you only made it under undue pressure because the witnesses were not sufficiently independent to be reliable certifiers.
Whoever you ask to be a witness should understand the importance of what you are asking. They do not need to know anything about the contents of your Will, or even that the document is a Will, and not some other. However, we recommend telling them because that alone will let them know it is important.
Younger neighbours are a good choice of witness.
A solicitor may be happy to witness your Will and wheel in some other person on their staff as your second witness, but they will charge for this service (usually nominally for their time). They may also try to persuade you that they 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.
Alternatively, you could choose another professional such as an accountant and a member of their staff (an accountant may charge like a solicitor would do). Your doctor may also agree to be a witness with another work colleague in their practice.
Who shouldn't be a witness to your Will
From a practical point of view, you should not ask the following people to be witnesses:
- anyone under 18 years of age
- anyone who is blind or partially sighted
- anyone who might not have full mental capacity (sound mind) to understand what they are witnessing
- any beneficiary or possible beneficiary, and their spouses
- your close family members (including your husband, wife or civil partner because they might become a beneficiary even if they are not named in your Will)
Once signed and witnessed
After attestation, your Will is complete and legally binding.
No-one needs to approve it (such as a solicitor) and it doesn't need to be registered with anyone.
We recommend giving a photocopy to each executor, particularly if they are not a beneficiary. If they are, just make sure they know you have made a Will and where you keep it.
Make sure you also have a photocopy in case you lose the original. If you do lose it, you'll need to make a new one, but the copy of the old one can save time in writing the words.
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. The risk is that changes could be construed as tampering by someone else and the Will could be declared invalid.
Minor changes can be added using a document called a codicil.
In most cases it is easier (and safer) to just draw a new Will.
Make sure your latest version includes a paragraph revoking your old will.
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 the original copy of your Will.
Some administrative points
It is best (but not a legal requirement) to make sure your Will is printed out in a way that places the signature and address of each witness on a single page together.
Having a signature on one page and an address on the next is legally valid but messy.
We suggest stapling your Will with three staples down the left side of the sheets. You can some other sort of binding system but you want to avoid the risk of pages tearing out (again, because it could be claimed that the Will has been tampered with). Will writers and solicitors usually bind a Will with a 'legal corner'.
You don't need to print your Will 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 risk that these are considered part of your wishes, and if added after signing, could 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, some of our more straightforward will templates are absolutely free with no catches or conditions. All are written in plain English.
If you are in doubt as to which to choose, read about where to start when making a will.