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What is a Last Will and Testament (also known as a Will)?

By Katherine Crowell

April 30, 2020


You may be familiar with what a Last Will and Testament or “Will” is—if only from television.

Traditionally a Will has been the backbone of an estate plan. It is a legally-binding document that spells out who will inherit the property of a person after his or her death.

What makes a Will valid?

A valid Will has to be executed with certain legal formalities, such as:

  • the signature of the person making the Will

  • signatures of witnesses

  • acknowledgement by a notary public

  • other requirements depending on the jurisdiction.

Terms to know with a Will

Here are some terms associated with Wills. We’ll define them in a general, traditional manner. Bear in mind that each state may have adopted different terms for the same concept.

For example, many states have replaced the traditional term “executor” with the term “personal representative.” This should not interfere with your understanding of the basic definitions.

  • The testator (or testatrix) is the person making the Will

  • The decedent (pronounced dǝ-cḗ-dǝnt) is the name for the deceased person. In the case of a married couple, the spouse of a decedent is called the surviving spouse.

  • devise is traditionally when you leave real property to someone under a Will. For example, a Will might say, “I give and devise my real property located at 123 Main Street to Mary.”

  • bequest is when you leave someone personal property to someone under a Will. For example, a Will might say, “I give and bequeath my silver tea service to Eileen.”

  • beneficiary is the person receiving the property.

  • The executor (or executrix) is the person named in the Will (and ultimately appointed by the court) to be in charge of doing what the Will says.

Is the “Reading of the Will” a real thing?

As exciting as it might be, typically there is no legal requirement that a Will be “read” as you might see on television or in the movies. The author, in her experience, has never heard of this being done in real life, although that’s not to say it hasn’t been done or couldn’t be done.


Excerpt from the book Estate Planning for the Savvy Client: What You Need to Know Before You Meet With Your Lawyer by Mary L. Barrow, Esq.

Copyright ©2020, 2017 by Mary L. Barrow

THIS EXCERPT IS A BRIEF SUMMARY FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND SHOULD NOT BE USED AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR THE ADVICE OF COMPETENT LEGAL COUNSEL FROM AN ATTORNEY ADMITTED OR AUTHORIZED TO PRACTICE LAW IN YOUR JURISDICTION. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONSULT YOUR ATTORNEY BEFORE IMPLEMENTING OR CHANGING ANY ESTATE PLANNING STRATEGY.