A Last Will and Testament is one of the most important legal documents a person can create during his or her lifetime. If a person dies without a Will they are said to have died “intestate” and state laws will determine how and to whom the person’s assets will be distributed.
If a person dies without a Will the beneficiaries can not dispute the court’s distribution of that person’s estate under the intestacy laws. Even if that person expressed different wishes verbally during their lifetime the statutes control the distribution. With a valid Will, a person can legally determine how their property will be distributed… and to whom.
A Will must meet the legal requirements set forth by the state in order for it to be valid. Most states will also accept a Will that was executed in another state if the document is a valid Will under that state’s law. The general requirements for a valid Will are usually as follows: (a) the document must be written (meaning typed or printed), (b) signed by the person making the Will (usually called the “testator” or “testatrix”, and (c) signed by two witnesses who were present to witness the execution of the document by the maker and who also witnessed each other sign the document.
In West Virginia, the laws regarding the valid execution and witnessing of a Will are set forth in the West Virginia Code; Chapter 41 Wills; Article 1. Capacity to Make; Requisites; Validity; Article 2 Competency of Witnesses; Article 5 Production, Probate and Record of Wills, Sections 41-1-1 through 41-5-15.
In West Virginia, any person eighteen (18) years of age and of sound mind may make a Will. (See: Section 41-1-2) “Sound mind” generally means someone who has not been deemed incompetent in a prior legal proceeding.
A Will must be in writing, signed by the testator and by two witnesses. If the testator cannot physically sign his name he may direct another party to do so. This party may not be one of the witnesses. Each witness must sign the Will in the testator’s presence. (See: Section 41-1-3)
Generally, it is recommended that the witnesses to the Will be “disinterested”, which means that they are not a beneficiary of the Will. In West Virginia a Will is not invalid if signed by an interested witness but that gift will be void. If the interested witness is an heir of the testator they may still take their gift up to the amount they would have received in intestacy. (See: Section 41-2-1)
If a Will’s authenticity is unchallenged it may be probated in a simplified procedure if it has been self-proven. Witnesses to a self-proven Will are not required to testify in court because the court automatically accepts a self-proven Will as authentic. To self-prove a Will the testator and the witnesses must swear in an affidavit before a notary to the authenticity of the Will. The affidavit should be part of the Will or attached to it. (See: Section 41-5-15)