This is part of an on-going series of blog posts titled the "What Is..." series, where we attempt to explain, in simple terms, common estate planning terms and concepts. To read other posts in this series, click here.
“I’m going on vacation next month, so I sent an email to my family to tell them my wishes in case something happens to me while I’m away.”
We hear this a lot. People want to make sure their family members know what they want to happen with their things or who they want to serve as a guardian for their kids, so they send an email. They put it in writing, thinking that it’s better than nothing. And, thinking that typing up something is more official than handwriting it.
Spoiler: handwriting a will is more likely to be legally binding than typing an email that isn’t signed. In fact, if it’s handwritten, signed, and dated, that’s better than typing it. This is known as a hand-written, or holographic, will.
In California, the legal requirements for a valid holographic will are: 1) that it needs to be signed; and 2) the “material provisions” are in the handwriting of the individual. There is no requirement for it to be dated; however, if the holographic will is not dated and there is any doubt as to whether certain provisions are controlling, then the holographic will may be invalid to the extent of the inconsistency (e.g., no one is sure which document was drafted later in time).
Additionally, if there are any questions as to whether the individual lacked capacity, the will may be deemed invalid. For example, someone who is going into surgery might hand-write a will, but this may bring up questions as to whether that person was on medication or otherwise lucid enough to make the decisions at the time it was written.
Holographic wills were recently in the news as Aretha Franklin was not believed to have a will or a trust. Instead, it was discovered that she had written out her wishes by hand on several different occasions. Michigan, where Aretha Franklin resided when she died, like California, recognizes holographic wills. The question will be whether what she wrote was valid, and which handwritten document would be controlling.
Holographic wills serve a valuable function when your options are limited. If available, the best option is to talk to a lawyer about your wishes and ensure that you have a comprehensive estate plan that benefits you and your loved ones both in the case of incapacity and in the case of death. Call us for a free consultation.