Putnam's Handy Law Book for the Layman
Will. - A will is a disposition of one's property to take effect after his death. He is called a testator, and must possess a sound mind to make an effective will. He must be able to comprehend what he is doing. Wills are often contested on the ground that the testator's mind was feeble and that undue influence was exercised over him in disposing of his property. Married women can make wills like their husbands and so can a minor in many states.
All of the states have enacted statutes on the subject which require various things; one of the most important is the witnessing of wills. Generally, three witnesses are required. An eminent judge, not long since, made a will to please his wife leaving a large sum to found an institution. He was opposed to the thing. The astute judge had no witnesses, so he both fooled his wife and pleased himself, for his will was worthless. The statutes require the witnesses to sign in the testator's presence, who often give important testimony of his competency whenever his will is contested. As they may be called for this purpose, intelligence should be used in selecting persons to become witnesses. A witness who is competent at the time of signing does not become incompetent by reason of anything that may happen to him afterward. A witness should not be given anything in the will, for, if this is done, his act of witnessing in perhaps all the states violates the gift. Though this may be the consequence the rest of the will is not thereby impaired. The property given is either real or personal. Real property consists of land extending indefinitely upward and downward, every building thereon, every growing thing, likewise all minerals and in some cases even ice. Personal property includes everything of a movable nature. A transformation is often effected. A tree while standing on the land is a part thereof; cut down it becomes personal property.
A will should be in writing; and this in most states is a statutory requirement, to guard against the wrongs and frauds that might otherwise arise. A testator may write his own will, indeed to do so would be a good test of will-making capacity. If he is unable to write his name, he may make his mark. When this is done, there should be ample proof that he did so, for a mark can be so easily made by any one.
A person to whom real estate is given is called a devisee; the receiver of personal property a legatee. When the testator gives real estate he must have regard to the laws of the state where it is situated; in giving personal property he is governed by the law of the state where he resides, his domicil. Many a devise has been declared invalid, because the testator in devising it did not comply with the law of the state where the land was located.
The principal ground on which wills are attacked is feebleness of mind, lack of mental capacity. The question assumes this form: did the testator at the time he executed his will have sufficient mental capacity to do it. An eminent jurist, Chief Justice Redfield, has said that he must have undoubtedly sufficient active memory to perceive the more obvious relations of things to each other. Even if unable to manage his business, he can nevertheless make a will if he knows what he is doing.
Again an insane person may make a will provided this is done during a lucid interval. Many a person is insane only at times or on particular subjects and therefore may be competent to make a rational disposition of his property. Some persons have curious religious beliefs, prejudices against persons, governments and institutions, and yet these vagaries may not impair their capacity to dispose of their property in a legal and rational manner.
Another requirement of a testator is that he must declare in the presence of the witnesses that it is his last will and testament. This is called a publication of the will. Of course, his will must be completed when this is done. Suppose a person makes several wills, which one of them is effective? The last one. A will should be dated, suppose this has been forgotten, what then? The last will must be established, if possible, by other evidence. Suppose it is believed that the last will has been destroyed, and a prior will is found, can this be set up as establishing the testator's disposition of his property? It is not his last will, for he has made another.
Any person may be a devisee or legatee including married women, minors and corporations. If a bequest is made to a corporation not in existence, is it valid? By some courts this can be done, by others this power is denied to a testator. Many a well-meant bequest to a noble charity has been smitten down because there was no legal donee then existing to receive the gift. A testator may bequeath property to a trustee who shall select the objects of the testator's bounty.
The thing bequeathed must be described with sufficient clearness to identify it, nothing more is required. In some cases proper evidence may be used to identify things where the description in the will is ambiguous.
A devise of lands may consist of the entire estate or interest of the testator, or he may give the devisee a lesser interest in them. It is a common thing for a testator to devise the use of land to a person during his lifetime, and after his death the entire interest or fee to another. He usually adds a final or residuary clause to his will to the effect, that all he may have which has not been bequeathed to any one specifically shall be given to one or more persons or objects named in his will. Or, if a legacy shall lapse, that is, the person to whom it has been given shall die, or for any other reason cannot, or will not take it, it falls into the residuary portion and goes to the residuary legatee.
If a will does not contain such a clause, and there is no statute in the way, then a lapsed legacy or other property, not covered by the will, goes to such persons as the law has prescribed whenever persons die leaving no will, or, in legal language, die intestate.
A will takes effect from the testator's death and so does the validity of all the bequests. Thus, should a person mentioned as legatee die before the testator, the legacy would be invalid. But many or all of the states have provided by statute for the continuation of these in many cases. Thus, should a son, to whom his father has devised some land, die leaving children, they take it in place of their father. These statutes vary much, some limiting the substitution to the lineal heirs of the deceased, son, grandson, etc., others extending the substitutes to the collateral heirs of any devisee or legatee.
Again, by statute and common law a wife is entitled on the death of her husband to a specific portion of his property. Should he not give her as much by his will, unless he had made an agreement with her before marriage with respect to what she was to receive, she may renounce her rights under her husband's will and claim what the law would give her as if he had made no will.
A will can be revoked any time. The common way is to destroy it. Another way is to dispose during his lifetime of his property. In one of the cases a testator had indorsed on his will in his own handwriting "canceled." Though this was not signed, it was held to be a revocation. In another case a blind testator called for his will which was handed to him. He gave it back with the direction to put it in the fire. Instead of doing so another piece of paper was substituted and burned. This was a downright fraud, and the court justly held that the will had been revoked.
Do It Yourself Legal Forms
Law for the Laymen - The Will
Page Updated 7:44 AM Monday 12/01/2014