The best – and maybe only – reason to create a holographic will is because you're in immediate peril and have no other option for letting others know how you want your estate handled after your death. Holographic wills aren't legal in all states, and among states that do recognize them, rules for writing one vary. By definition, a holographic will is handwritten and unwitnessed, but even these standards don't apply across all jurisdictions.
States that recognize holographic wills typically require that the entire document must be in your handwriting. If you type your will or create it on your computer, it's not holographic. This rule prohibits someone else from handwriting your will before you add your signature. Signing your will is mandatory, and many states require that you clearly date the will as well. For example, in California, even if you do everything else right but you neglect to indicate the date you signed it, the court will not accept your holographic will. You must usually write your will on a blank piece of paper, although some states, such as North Carolina, will accept a holographic will that includes other non-related notations.
Some states accept handwritten wills if they're witnessed, and many cite the exact number of witnesses you must have. If you elect to have your will witnessed or if your state requires it, this can potentially save your loved ones a court appearance after your death. Witnesses attest that they saw you sign your will, as well as that the will is indeed in your own handwriting. If there's any doubt that it's your handwriting, this can create complications when your family submits your holographic will for probate. As an added measure to ensure that your will is honored as valid and legitimate, you can have it notarized.
Typically, the same rules that apply to all wills in your state also apply to holographic wills. You must be of sound mind at the time you create it and not be doing so under duress. If you have witnesses, they can attest to this as well. You should state that your will is indeed your will, name an executor – someone to guide your estate through the probate process – and include a complete list of your assets and to whom you would like to leave them. If you have children, you can name a guardian for them. North Carolina requires that after you complete and sign your will, you must place it among your other important personal papers or in a location where it's clear that you intended the writing to act as your last will and testament.
Creating a holographic will should be a last resort unless your background is in estate law. Particularly if you have extensive assets, you'll want to ensure that the language included in your will clearly depicts your intentions and that you're not leaving anything to chance because you didn't understand the laws in your state. The worst case scenario is that the court will not accept your will as valid because you've made a fundamental error. In this case, your estate would pass to your next of kin according to your state's laws, and the statutory list of beneficiaries may not include some individuals you wanted to name. The statutory list could also include people to whom you don't want to leave your property.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She specializes in personal finance and w, bankruptcy, and she writes as the tax expert for The Balance.