Is a Handwritten Will Valid in New York?

Wills

Handwritten Wills: What You Need to Know

It’s true that you don’t get to take your possessions with you when you die, but you can make sure they end up where you want them to go. When you create an estate plan, you get to decide who will be beneficiaries of your estate and how your assets will be distributed. And an important part of an estate plan is your last will and testament. Find out what the rules are for how wills are created and under what circumstances a handwritten will is valid in the state of New York.

Is a Handwritten Will a Valid Will in New York?

In the state of New York, a will must be dated and signed by the testator. The testator must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. The will must also be properly signed by two witnesses. If all of these are true and the will is simply handwritten instead of typed up, the will is legally valid as long as it is clear and legible.

A will that is handwritten but is not properly witnessed is called a holographic will. In general, a holographic will is not legally valid in the state of New York except in very specific circumstances, discussed below. Even if a holographic will meets those criteria, it may have a higher chance of being challenged during probate.

Rules for Holographic Wills

A holographic will is only legally valid within New York if one of the three situations apply:

● The testator is a member of the U.S. armed forces and is in active duty service during a war or other armed conflict. “War” has a loose legal definition here and can be either declared or undeclared, but armed forces have to be specifically engaged in the conflict for this to apply.
● The testator is not a military member but is someone who “serves with or accompanies” armed forces engaged in an active military conflict.
● The testator is a “mariner while at sea.”

There have been a few other specific cases where the New York probate courts have upheld a holographic will as valid, but these are rare, and the majority of holographic wills are deemed invalid. If you’re not sure if your situation meets the definition of one of the above criteria for a holographic will to be accepted, talk with a wills attorney who can provide more information.

What Happens If a Will Is Deemed Invalid?

If a will is set aside by the probate courts because it is invalid, there are generally two options. Either the estate is distributed according to the instructions in a previous will, or the person is declared intestate — meaning having died without a will — and the state laws for distributing assets go into effect. The state of New York has specific rules for how intestate estates are distributed:

● If there is a surviving spouse but no children, everything in the estate passes to the spouse.
● If there is a spouse and children, the spouse gets the first $50,000 of the estate and half of what remains. The other half is distributed among the deceased’s legal children.
● If there are children but no spouse, the children inherit the entire estate to be divided equally between them.
● If the person dies without a spouse or children but has immediate family members, the deceased’s parents and/or siblings inherit the estate, depending on what family is there.
● If the person dies with no living relatives, the estate reverts back to the state of New York.

Keep in mind that for these guidelines, legal children means that it is the person’s biological children or adopted children. If the child was born outside the marriage, legal paternity must have been established for the child to inherit.

Working With an Estate Planning Attorney

To give your will the best chance of going through probate without an issue or being challenged, it’s best to work with an estate planning attorney who can help you draft a will and ensure that it meets all the legal requirements. An attorney can help you understand what laws apply to those you name as your beneficiaries. For example, in New York, you must leave some of your estate to a living spouse and any minor children. If you don’t, the will can be set aside because the law requires that you maintain adequate provisions for dependents.

A lawyer can also help you understand how your will functions as part of your larger estate plan and whether other tools, such as establishing a trust, may be a better option to handle some of your assets. A will is a valuable tool, but it does have its drawbacks. For example, the probate process can be quite lengthy, so if there is an immediate need for property or funds to be used directly after your death, these may be inaccessible for several months if they are in a will as opposed to a trust.

There are many reasons someone may consider a handwritten will, but it’s important to understand that trying to create a will on your own without following the proper guidelines can mean that your will ends up being thrown out and your estate may not be distributed according to your wishes. If you need to create a will or want to know how to alter or rescind a will that is already made, contact Davidov Law Group at (516) 928-6594. A member of our team can help you schedule a consultation so you can understand what you need to ensure your will is valid and how to protect your estate.

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