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What is a holographic will?

What is a holographic will? It is a last will and testament that is handwritten. Here's what to know if you have questions about holographic wills.

evident Editorial Team
November 28, 2023
Fountain pen on holographic will with flower

If you’re wondering "what is a holographic will?", the first thing you need to know is that a will (or last will and testament) is a document that describes how you would like all of your assets and property to be distributed after your death. A holographic will is a handwritten will that you write and sign yourself.

But are such wills valid? And what should be in a holographic will?

Read for everything you should know about holographic wills.

Key Takeaways

What is the difference between a regular will and a holographic will?

A standard, traditional will is a legal document that delegates how you would like all of your assets and belongings to be distributed after you pass away. Unlike a holographic will, most wills typically are not handwritten and follow a format that complies with state laws with a set of basic components, including:

  • Identifying the testator (the person making a will is called the testator)
  • Stating that the testator understands that the document is a will and is of sound mind (capable of understanding that the document is a will) 
  • Stating who the beneficiaries are and what each person is receiving 
  • Naming the executor (the person who carries out the wishes of the testator based on the will)
  • The testator's signature 
  • Witness signatures

So what is a holographic will? A holographic will is a handwritten document that expresses how you would like your assets and belongings to be distributed after you pass away. Unlike a will that a lawyer drafts, holographic wills are typically not witnessed or notarized. 

Although most wills are witnessed and notarized to ensure their validity, this does not always happen – some people overlook this step. On the other hand, holographic wills are typically not witnessed or notarized, but they can be. 

What are the requirements for a valid holographic will?

If you are wondering how to write a holographic will, it is important to understand what needs to be included to make your holographic will valid. You should also be aware that different states require different components for a holographic will to be valid, so be sure to confirm what the rules are in your state. 

In general, though, for it to be a valid will, a holographic will must:

  1. Be written entirely in your own handwriting (some states allow that only the section identifying the beneficiaries and what they are to receive be handwritten) 
  2. Be signed by you, the testator (some states also require it to be dated) 
  3. Explicitly name the beneficiaries and what each person is receiving 
  4. Indicate the intent for the document to be a will 

Note that there must also be evidence that the handwriting in a holographic will is in fact yours. The authenticity of the handwriting can be confirmed by relatives or others who are capable of identifying your handwriting, or by an expert in handwriting analysis.

Does a holographic will need to be witnessed?

As mentioned above, holographic wills are often not witnessed or notarized. While a holographic will does not always need to be witnessed or notarized, there may be difficulty in proving the will’s validity in probate court if it is not.

The main reason wills–holographic or otherwise–often require witnesses is that if the will is contested in probate court, those witnesses can testify to the will’s validity. For this reason, not all states accept holographic wills as legally valid. 

Although holographic wills often aren't witnessed or notarized, they can be. If a holographic will is witnessed, it is less likely that the will’s validity will later be contested.

This is also true for traditional (non-holographic) wills – although they are often witnessed and notarized, this does not happen in every case. Traditional wills that are not witnessed may also be contested. 

So, does a holographic will need to be witnessed? Not necessarily, but it can help avoid will contests later.

Where are holographic wills accepted, and where are they not?

Holographic wills are not accepted by all states, and some states accept holographic wills only to varying degrees. Additionally, keep in mind that each state has its own laws governing the treatment of wills generally, whether holographic or not. 

States that accept holographic wills

States that accept holographic wills as valid legal documents include: 

  • Alaska; Arizona; Arkansas; California; Colorado; Hawaii; Idaho; Kentucky; Maine; Michigan; Mississippi; Montana; Nebraska; Nevada; New Jersey; North Carolina; North Dakota; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; South Dakota; Tennessee; Texas; Utah; Virginia; West Virginia; Wyoming 

States with “foreign will” provisions

In other states, holographic wills written within the state are not accepted, but holographic wills are accepted if they were written within the borders of states that accept them as legally valid under what’s called a foreign wills provision. 

States with this type of foreign wills provision include: 

  • Alabama; Connecticut; Delaware; Iowa; Minnesota; New Mexico; Rhode Island; South Carolina; Washington

For example, if you write a holographic will in Texas (where holographic wills are valid) but pass away in Alabama, then Alabama will recognize your will as valid. This is true even though Alabama would not actually recognize a holographic will written within Alabama.

New York and Maryland - holographic wills for military members

In New York, holographic wills are only recognized and accepted if they are made by a member of the Armed Forces. Additionally, the holographic will is only valid for one year after the testator is discharged or one year after the testator regains the capacity to write a will, whichever happens first.

Maryland also only accepts holographic wills if they are made by a member of the Armed Forces. Holographic wills made in Maryland are only valid for one year after the testator is discharged, unless they are no longer of sound mind (and incapable of understanding that they are making a will) at that time.

Should I make a holographic will?

fountain pen on notepad

A holographic will may sound like an appealing option due to its simplicity and the avoided cost of paying an estate planning lawyer to write your will. But there are serious shortcomings and limitations to holographic wills, and hiring an estate planning lawyer to draft your will may help you avoid some of these limitations.

Overall, estate planning is important, so it is generally better to have a holographic will than to not have a will at all. But mistakes in creating a holographic will can impact whether your final wishes are fulfilled. 

It’s important to understand these tradeoffs when considering whether to draft a holographic will.

Limitations of holographic wills 

Some of the potential shortcomings of holographic wills include: 

  • Difficult to prove their validity
  • State laws vary concerning holographic wills 
  • Easier to make mistakes 
Validity of holographic wills

As mentioned, holographic wills are typically not witnessed or notarized. After the testator has passed away, it can be difficult to navigate questions about a holographic will's validity if there are no witnesses available to testify that the will reflects the testator's intentions. 

Similarly, a testator must be “of sound mind” when writing a will. This means that you can understand that you are writing a last will and testament, and that you intend for the document to be a will. Without witnesses, it may be difficult to prove that you were not unduly influenced by someone who sought assets that you might not have freely intended to give to them. 

Additionally, because holographic wills are handwritten, they generally require evidence to prove that the handwriting is in fact the testator’s handwriting. Problems with interpretation may also arise if the handwriting on the will is difficult to read or if the language is vague. 

State laws regarding holographic wills vary

As mentioned, not all states accept holographic wills, and many others only accept them in certain circumstances. State laws can also change, so if the state you write a holographic will in changes its laws and no longer accepts holographic wills, your will would no longer be valid. 

Additionally, if you created your holographic will in a state that accepts them but move to a different state that does not accept holographic wills, your will might no longer be valid.   

Easy to make mistakes

It is generally easier to make mistakes when creating a holographic will than when drafting a more formal will. Illegible handwriting, errors, or vague language can all call a will’s validity into question. Any mistakes in your holographic will can have long-term impacts on the distribution of your assets. 

Alternatives to holographic wills

On the other hand, wills created by estate planning attorneys are generally more reliable, which can help ensure that your last wishes are fulfilled. (And keep in mind, there are online tools for drafting wills that provide a do-it-yourself option without limiting yourself to a handwritten will). 

When deciding whether you want to write a holographic will or hire an estate planning attorney to draft your will for you, it is worth considering the pros and cons of creating a holographic will. 

Benefits of creating a holographic will include:

  • It’s cheaper than hiring an estate planning attorney
  • The process of writing the will yourself is simpler

Limitations of a holographic will compared to a will created by an attorney:

  • You won’t have the help of an estate planning lawyer to sort out complex family or business issues
  • It is up to you to research your state’s laws and ensure that your will meets any state-specific requirements
  • To update your holographic will, you may have to rewrite the entire document
  • You may not get the same peace of mind from knowing that a professional has tailored your will to your specific needs and that your wishes will be followed

To be clear, lawyers can make mistakes, too. And not all traditional wills have witnesses. So it is certainly true that non-holographic wills (including those created with the assistance of attorneys) can also be contested. 

But generally speaking, if you are in a position to hire an estate planning lawyer, doing so can increase the chances that any will you create is valid and that your wishes are fulfilled.

What should be in a holographic will?

So, if you do draft a handwritten will, what should be in a holographic will?

As with all wills, a holographic will must clearly and explicitly state the beneficiaries and what assets each will receive. To avoid potential issues later, it is important to be clear and concise when delegating your assets. It is also important to name the executor, the person who will carry out the wishes described in the will. 

A holographic will should also state your intent for the document to be a will. All wills require the testator to be “of sound mind.” Clearly expressing your intent for the document to be a will can avoid future problems about whether you intended the document to be a will. 

And remember, because all holographic wills are handwritten, it is essential that you write legibly and avoid making errors to avoid any confusion later.

Other FAQs about holographic wills

Can a holographic will be contested? 

Yes, a holographic will can be contested, just as any will can. Indeed, it is common for holographic wills to be contested because they often lack witnesses. 

A holographic will could be contested as invalid for several reasons, including: 

  • That the testator was not of sound mind when writing the will
  • That the testator did not intend for the document to be their last will and testament
  • That the handwriting on the will is not the testator’s

Keep in mind that vague language, illegible handwriting, or errors made on a holographic will can also call the will’s validity into question. 

Does Ohio accept holographic wills?

To be valid under the Ohio holographic will statute, a holographic will must meet all of the same requirements as a traditional will. To create a valid holographic will in Ohio: 

  • You must be at least 18 years old 
  • You must be of sound mind 
  • The decisions described in your will must be free and voluntary 
  • The holographic will must be written in a hard copy 
  • It must be signed by both you and two witnesses that watch you sign the will  

So yes, Ohio recognizes holographic wills, but only if they meet the same requirements as a traditional will.

The bottom line

So, what is a holographic will? Holographic wills are handwritten wills and depending on where you live, state law may or may not recognize holographic wills as valid.

For some, having a handwritten will may be better than having no will at all. (For instance, for persons serving in the armed forces). But there are risks to handwriting your will, and it could increase the chances that your will is contested or disregarded.

If possible, it often helps to consult an estate attorney to discuss your estate planning needs and what steps you should take to get a valid will in place.

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