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Last Will and Testament

By Raymond M. Roberts, Esq.

What is a Will? 

Most people have some idea what a will does.  Generally, a will is a document written by a person that directs how his or her assets are to be distributed after he or she dies.  However, a will can and does do much more.

The person who makes a will is called a Testator (if a man) or a Testatrix (if a woman).  The testator will do several things in his will.  One of the most important parts of a will is the appointment of a personal representative.  This person is called an Executor (if a man) or an Executrix (if a woman).  The first duty of an executor is to assemble the assets of the deceased and all of the debts of the deceased.  The executor will administer the estate until all debts are paid and then will distribute the remaining assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.  If you do not have a will, the personal representative will be appointed by the court and is called an Administrator (or Administratrix if a woman).  The duties of the administrator are the same as the executor.  The only difference is that you choose you personal representative if you have a will.  The court will make that choice if you do not have a will.

There are two types of wills, holographic and formal.  A holographic will is a will that is entirely hand written by the testator and dated and signed by him at the bottom. The authenticity of a holographic will is verified by the handwriting of the decedent.  There are often no witnesses and the will is not notarized.  A formal will is a typed document signed by the testator that is authenticated and verified by witnesses who will also sign the will.  A holographic will is valid in many states, including Pennsylvania, but may present some problems at probate and is more likely to be challenged than a formal will.  You can write a will without a lawyer's help, but just remember this one caveat:  There are laws which may invalidate provisions of your will or the entire will itself if you do not comply with them.  When writing a holographic will, many people neglect to appoint an executor or inadvertently cut off people to whom they wish to leave a bequest.  The benefits of hiring an attorney to write your will far exceed the costs involved.

The difference between dying testate (with a will) or intestate (without a will) is that if you die with a will, you tell the court how you want your assets to be distributed.  If you die intestate, the Pennsylvania State Legislature (by means of the Laws of Intestate Succession) tells the court how your assets are to be distributed.

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