If you are a Pennsylvanian currently giving some thought to your estate plan, you likely have questions about the documents (wills, trusts, etc.) you may use to achieve your goals. In order to clearly understand your options, it is highly recommended that you seek the advice of an attorney. Although do-it-yourself documents may appear to be cost-effective, this approach can be penny-wise and pound-foolish, and worse – lead to devastating results. Check out Attorney Marshall’s blog article about the danger of do-it-yourself wills here.
Wills are one of the most oft utilized instruments in estate planning, but they may also invite a bit of confusion in terms of what is required for validity. In particular, are witnesses required in order to make a will valid in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?
As you may guess, the answer is – it depends. In most instances, witnesses are not required. Some of the requirements for a will in Pennsylvania are that it be 1) In writing and 2) Signed by the testator (person whose ‘will it is’) at the end[i]. Therefore, as long as the other requirements necessary to create a will are adhered to, witnesses are not required at the time of signing. Only in other, special circumstances, where the testator signs “by mark”[ii] or where someone else signs for them[iii] are witnesses required at the time of signing.
Now that we have established that in general, witnesses to a will are not required, it seems appropriate to ask – should you have witnesses to your will? The short answer to this question is that yes, it is preferable for to have witnesses to your will.
Although witnesses are not required at the time the will is signed, they are required in some capacity at probate (the process of ‘proving’ the will and administering the estate). The role of the witnesses is essentially to verify that the instrument being offered is indeed the testator’s will. Oaths or affirmations of witnesses who can verify the signature of the testator, though not ideal, are sufficient to ‘prove’ the will.
The ideal will form in Pennsylvania is referred to as a ‘self-proving’ will. Self-proving wills help simplify the probate process by allowing the county’s Register of Wills to accept a notarized affidavit of the testator and witnesses as proof the will is the testator’s as if those statements were made before the Register of Wills at probate[iv]. This means that by following the procedures set forth for self-proving wills, the testator can help ease the burden on their executor at the time of probate because they will not have to spend time and effort to locate witnesses.
In short, although under normal circumstances witnesses are not required for wills in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is preferable to have a self-proving will with witnesses. Proceeding in this manner can help ease the burden on your executor in the difficult days following your passing and perhaps provide the testator some additional peace of mind during their life.
It is highly recommended to visit an elder law attorney so they can help you determine what instruments and methods are available and preferable for your estate plan. An elder law attorney’s office can help you by ensuring your instrument meets the necessary legal standards so that you can avoid unintended consequences. The attorney can also review the document with you and answer questions to help you understand its provisions.