How not to write a Last Will and Testament

People are sometimes scared away from writing their own Will. Lawyers will claim that it is a difficult task that only people in the legal profession truly understand, and with some scaremongering, convince people that they should pay a lot of money for legal advice even though their wishes may be very simple. We’ve presented many arguments over the last few months explaining that writing a Will is certainly something within the intellectual means of many people, particularly with interactive tools that are available today. At the same time, we warn people against the use of cheap kits or blank forms, or even preparing a Will starting with a blank sheet of paper.

There are definitely certain legal elements that have to belong in every Will and it is possible that in attempting to handwrite a Will from scratch, these elements can be overlooked. An example  of how it can all go wrong made the press last month in the case of Irish poet John O’Donohue and his €2 million estate.

Mr O’Donohue was an educated man, he wrote poetry and philosophy for a living, so it would seem that writing a Will should be easily within his intellectual capabilities. Particularly when his wishes were seemingly quite straightforward; he wanted everything that he owned to go to his mother to be divided equally between his family. But he made at least two terrible mistakes in his Will. He went on to wish that his sister was to receive extra care and help and that some funds should go as specific bequests to other individuals. Generally a court would try and respect a person’s wishes if they can be deciphered, but in this Will there were both “mutually exclusive” wishes and there were also extra bequests that could not be quantified or sourced. In other words, you can’t say “leave everythingI own to John Doe and leave a half of everything I own to Jane Doe”.

The other critical mistake was that the witnesses to the signing of the document were his mother and brother; both beneficiaries  in the Will. This alone in most jurisdictions would nullify the Will as there would always be a suspicion of coercion if the witnesses are also beneficiaries.

So, what are the important lessons here? At first it would be easy to make this a shining example of why you should not prepare your own Will, but I think this is an over-reaction. If you use an interactive service like the one at LegalWills.caUSLegalWills.com and LegalWills.co.uk you are guided through the process each step of the way. The signing instructions are included as part of the service, and yes, it is a good idea to read them. Put simply, to make your document legal it must be signed in the presence of two (or sometimes three depending on the jurisdiction) witnesses who cannot benefit from the contents of the Will. This means beneficiaries for sure, and also in some places the spouse of a beneficiary cannot serve as a witness. They are some other criteria as well; adults, of sound mind etc.

It is also important to read through one’s Will once it is completed to make sure there are no conflicting requests. You can’t leave the same thing to more than one person.

John O’Donohue’s story is a sad one (not so much for his mother who ended up inheriting everything), but it should not scare people away from writing their own Will. If you have a straightforward situation it is well within the capabilities of most people to use an interactive tool to prepare their Will. However, do not use a blank kit, and do not attempt to write one yourself starting with a blank piece of paper.

2 thoughts on “How not to write a Last Will and Testament

    • Hi John, thanks for the comment. We cannot give legal advice here, but it’s a fairly straightforward answer. Just about every State in the US requires two people to witness the signing of a Will. You can check the appropriate Wills Act for the State in which your dad was living, but it will almost certainly say that two witnesses are required.

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