Download our free probate checklist. Download now

What Makes a Will Valid in California?

Discover the legal requirements for a valid will in California. From signatures to witnesses, we break down the key elements for you

What Makes a Will Valid in California

Executing a will, or writing up your own will in California can feel like navigating a labyrinth of legal complexities. We've created this comprehensive guide to illuminate the path, providing you with the essential knowledge to ensure the will you're working with is considered valid in the eyes of California law.

From understanding the basic requirements of a valid will, through the specifics of holographic wills and the role of witnesses, to the process of altering a will, this guide covers it all.

Whether you're an executor or an estate planner, this guide will equip you with the tools you need to confidently navigate estate planning and probate in California.

Requirements of a Valid Will in California

1. The Testator Must Be 18 Years Old And Of Sound Mind

According to California Probate Code §6100 - the person making the will, known as the testator, must meet certain basic requirements:

  • Age: The testator must be at least 18 years old. This age requirement is a legal standard, ensuring that the testator is an adult capable of making significant decisions.
  • Mental Competency: The testator must be of sound mind. This means they must understand the nature of the testamentary act - that they are creating a document to distribute their property after death. They should also be aware of the extent and value of their property and understand their relationship to the people who will inherit their property, such as a spouse, children, or other relatives.

2. Ensuring the Will is in Writing

In California, it is imperative that your will is in writing, which means it must be in a tangible form. Whether you choose to type it out or handwrite it, the document must clearly articulate your intentions.

For instance, a written will either be one that you have penned down yourself, known as a holographic will, or one that you have typed and printed. *Note that a holographic will might require further verification, especially if it lacks a date or has provisions conflicting with another will.

Important to note:

It's important to realize that digital copies, such as PDFs saved on your computer, or oral declarations are not considered valid forms of a will under California law.

3. The Will Must Be Witnessed and Signed

The will must be signed by the testator. If the testator cannot sign it themselves, it can be signed by another person, but only in the testator's presence and under their direction.

The signature serves as a confirmation that the will is indeed from the testator and reflects their final wishes.

The signing of the will must be witnessed by at least two individuals. These witnesses must:

  • Be present at the same time during the signing of the will or the testator's acknowledgment of the signature or of the will.
  • It is important to recognize that the document being signed is the testator's will.

Witnesses provide an additional layer of verification to the authenticity of the will, making it harder for anyone to contest the will later.

4. The Will Must Be Made Freely and Voluntarily

A will can be declared invalid if its execution or revocation was procured by duress, menace, fraud, or undue influence. As an executor or estate planner, it's important to ensure that the testator is making or had made their will freely and without any form of coercion.

Handwritten Wills: Are They Valid in California?

What is a Holographic Will?

While a Holographic Will might sound like an estate planning tool from the future - it's actually anything but.

A holographic will refers to a handwritten will that is signed by the testator.

These types of wills are often created in urgent situations, such as when an individual is aware they are nearing the end of their life and there's no one around to help draft a formal, typed will.

Are Holographic Wills Legal in California?

Yes, holographic wills are legally recognized in California.

While holographic wills are considered valid in California - It's important to note that while they are legal, they are typically seen as a last resort due to the potential complications they can present.

Key Requirements for a Valid Holographic Will

To ensure your holographic will is legally sound in California, it must meet the following requirements as per California Probate Code §6111(a):

  • Sound Mind: You must be fully aware of the implications of your actions when creating the will. It should be clear that you intend for this document to serve as your formal will.
  • Handwriting: The will must be written in your handwriting. This can be verified by people familiar with your writing or, if necessary, a handwriting analysis expert.
  • Signature: You must sign the will. While the signature can be placed anywhere on the document, it must be present to avoid allegations of fraud.
  • Witnesses and Date: Although not legally required, it's recommended to have witnesses and to include a date on the will. These elements can provide additional validity and help determine the most recent version if multiple wills exist.

Potential Challenges with Holographic Wills

Although holographic wills are legally allowed in California, they can pose various challenges.

  • Authenticity: Holographic wills can be contested due to doubts about the authenticity of the handwriting or signature, or suspicions that someone else wrote the will.
  • Completeness: Without the guidance of a legal professional, holographic wills may be incomplete or unclear, potentially leading to disputes among beneficiaries.
  • Proof of Sound Mind: Without witnesses, it can be difficult to prove that you were of sound mind when you created the will.

The Bottom Line

Holographic wills are a valid, albeit less ideal, method of estate planning in California. Due to the potential challenges they present, it's advisable to consult with a professional for estate planning needs.

While a holographic will is better than having no will at all, a professionally drafted will can provide peace of mind knowing that your wishes will be clearly communicated and legally upheld.

Witnesses of a Will: The Key to Validity

The Role of Witnesses

Witnesses serve as a critical safeguard in the will creation process. They confirm the testator's mental capacity and free will at the time of signing, providing a layer of protection against claims of fraud or coercion. In California, any generally competent person can act as a witness, but it's recommended to use adults to avoid potential competence issues (California Probate Code §6112(a)).

Disinterested Witnesses: A Safe Bet

Ideally, witnesses should have no financial stake in the will, making them "disinterested." This ensures their testimony is unbiased. If a beneficiary witnesses a will, they're considered an "interested witness," which can lead to their gift being invalidated due to a presumption of undue influence (California Probate Code §6112(b)).

The Exception to the Rule

Interestingly, if a will is witnessed by three people, including one interested witness and two disinterested witnesses, the presumption of undue influence does not apply.

The interested witness retains their gift in this case (California Probate Code §6112(c)).

In conclusion, while anyone generally competent can witness a will, choosing disinterested parties is a safer bet.

Are Changes To The Will Legal?

Life is a dynamic journey, and changes are inevitable. As an executor, you may encounter situations where the testator has altered their will to accommodate life changes such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child. It's crucial to understand that a will can be updated, modified, or amended at any time during the life of the testator.

The Process of Changing a Will

There are two primary ways to a testator can change a will in California: through a codicil or by creating a new will.

  1. Codicil: A codicil is an amendment to a will. It must be written, signed, and witnessed just like a will. It should specify the exact provision in the will that is being amended. However, it's important to note that codicils are best suited for minor changes. For significant updates, it's usually better to create a new will (California Probate Code §6121).
  2. Creating a New Will: If the changes are extensive or if there are multiple codicils, it might be more practical to create a new will. The new will should follow all the legal requirements, and it can include a statement such as "I hereby revoke all former wills." Once the new will is created, it revokes any previous wills (California Probate Code §6120).

Codicils: Small Changes, Big Impact

A codicil is a legal document used for minor amendments to a will, such as updating beneficiaries or changing an executor. It must meet the same legal requirements as the original will, including the presence of witnesses.

Codicil to a will sample

** Pictured above is a sample of a codicil to a will, and is used for educational purposes only**

Codicils: Small Changes, Big Impact

A codicil is a legal document used for minor amendments to a will, such as updating beneficiaries or changing an executor. It must meet the same legal requirements as the original will, including the presence of witnesses.

Revoking a Will: Out with the Old

A will can be revoked by creating a new will or physically destroying the old one. If a new will is made, it should follow all legal requirements of a valid will. Physical destruction, such as burning or tearing, must be done with the intention of revoking the will (California Probate Code §6121).

Executor's Role: Ensuring Validity

As an executor, your role is to ensure the most recent and valid will is used in the probate process. If a codicil or new will appears, you must verify its validity and legal compliance. If conflicts arise between documents, seek legal advice.

In conclusion, understanding changes to a will and their legal implications is crucial for an executor. It ensures a smooth probate process and accurate distribution of the testator's assets.

Navigating Estate Planning and Probate with Confidence

In wrapping up, understanding the intricacies of estate planning and the requirements for a valid will in California is imperative for estate planners and executors.

A valid will is essential in ensuring that the deceased's last wishes are honored and that their estate is distributed according to their intentions. This involves paying meticulous attention to the testator's age, mental competency, the necessity of witnesses, proper documentation, and the specifics regarding holographic wills and alterations to a will.

As an executor, the responsibility of verifying the validity of the will and any alterations, as well as navigating the probate process, falls on your shoulders. This is a critical role, and expert advice can be invaluable in ensuring a smooth probate process.

For estate planners, creating a comprehensive and legally sound estate plan requires in-depth knowledge of estate laws and regulations. A well-drafted estate plan provides peace of mind, knowing that your client's wishes will be clearly communicated and legally upheld.

Given the complexities of estate laws, seeking professional legal counsel is highly advisable.

If you are an executor dealing with probate, we invite you to book a free consultation with us for expert guidance and support throughout the probate process.

Similarly, if you are an estate planner looking to create a comprehensive and legally robust estate plan, we are here to assist you. Schedule a free consultation with our experienced team for expert advice and support in estate planning.

Don’t leave anything to chance; let us help you ensure the integrity and legality of the wills and estate plans you are handling. Book your free consultation today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a Foreign Will Valid in California?

Yes, a foreign will can indeed be recognized as valid in the state of California. This is subject to certain conditions as outlined in the California Probate Code §61131. A foreign will is deemed valid in California if it meets any of the following criteria:

  1. The will was executed in compliance with California law.

  2. The will was executed in accordance with the applicable laws at the time and location of its execution.

  3. The will was executed in compliance with the law of the place where, at the time of execution or at the time of death, the decedent was domiciled, had a place of abode, or was a national.

In addition, California recognizes international wills under the California Uniform International Wills Act. This act was modeled to replicate the requirements of the signing of wills under the Washington Convention. The main requirements, as indicated in Probate Code section 6380 and following, are:

  1. The will must be in writing.

  2. The will must be signed in front of two witnesses and a legally authorized person (an attorney is fine).

  3. A certificate in the exact form of California Probate Code section 6384 must be signed, dated, and attached to the will.

  4. The will must be for only one person.

  5. The will is signed on every page, and at the end.

  6. Every page of the will must be numbered.

Therefore, if you have a foreign will or an international will that meets these conditions, it can be considered valid in California.

Does a will in California need to be notarized?

In California, notarization of a will is not a legal requirement, but it can be beneficial. A notarized will often includes a "self-proving affidavit" signed by the testator and two witnesses, which can expedite the probate process by eliminating the need to contact the witnesses for verification.

However, notarization does not replace the necessity for witness signatures, and a notarized will without these signatures is not valid. A notary public's role is to verify the identities of the signatories and ensure they are signing willingly.

Therefore, while notarization can aid in a smoother probate process, it's crucial to remember that it doesn't inherently validate a will.

Untitled design 3 Need help with probate?

Get free, personalized guidance from our estate specialists who have guided over 10,000 families through probate. Book a free, no hassle and confidential consultation today.

Speak to an estate specialist today