There are several important steps involved in turning your draft of your simple will into a finalized document with full legal effect. The remaining instructions, below, will guide you through the process of finalizing (executing) your simple will.
Paper and Printing
Unlike most printed documents, an original signed will may need to last a very long time. At the very least, it needs to be able to last the rest of your life. The paper on which a will is printed should be of archival quality so that, over the course of many decades, it will not deteriorate, become brittle, yellow, or interact with the ink in a way that causes the ink to fade or smear. When choosing paper, select a white or off-white paper that is acid-free and designed for archival purposes. We recommend choosing a paper that is labeled as having a weight of 20 to 24 pounds. You should choose paper with a smooth surface. Watermarks are common on paper products of archival quality and are acceptable, but avoid choosing any paper that has a coarse texture or patterns in the weave that are noticeable when you hold a sheet of it. The paper needs to have dimensions of 8.5 inches by 11 inches. Most office supply stores carry a variety of paper types with these qualities, usually labeled as resume paper, business paper, or stationery. A close examination of the packaging should indicate whether the paper meets the above requirements.
When printing your simple will, we strongly recommend using a laser printer. Laser printers, generally, produce much higher quality text than inkjet printers. If you do not otherwise have access to a laser printer, you should be able to find a nearby printing business that does have one and ask them to print your simple will for you.
We recommend that you print one or two extra copies of your will in case there are mistakes during the signing process and you need to start over.
Witnesses and Notary
You will need two people to act as witnesses when you execute your simple will. These two people must meet the qualifications to be a witness, and they must be able to attend the signing of your will in person.
You will also need to have a notary present when you execute your simple will. The notary cannot be one of the witnesses. If you happen to be a notary, you cannot serve as the notary for your own simple will. Most banks and credit unions have a person on staff at each branch who is a notary for the purpose of notarizing documents for their customers. A notary has no obligation to notarize a person’s legal documents, and a notary may refuse to notarize your simple will. Therefore, it is always a good idea to ask the notary in advance whether the notary will be willing to notarize your simple will.
Getting Ready to Meet for the Simple Will Signing
When you know who your notary and witnesses will be, schedule a time to meet with all three of them together in a quiet place, indoors, with a suitable writing surface and enough space that all four of you can be together in the room at the same time. You should choose a place where you, the witnesses, and the notary will be able to go through the will-signing process without interruptions. You should also choose a place that is within the county you wrote into the last two pages of your simple will. If you find out that you will be signing the simple will in a county other than the one you wrote into the document, you should edit your copy of the simple will template to reflect the correct county, then reprint the simple will.
Ask your witnesses to bring government-issued photo ID to the meeting. You should also bring photo ID to the meeting. The notary may require to see yours and the witnesses’ photo IDs before agreeing to perform any notary services.
In addition, you should bring your printed simple will with you and a couple of ballpoint pens with blue or black ink.
Step-by-Step Instructions for Executing the Simple Will
When you, the two witnesses, and the notary are together in the same room, do the following steps to make sure everybody knows everything they need to know for the will signing to proceed:
- If you do not already know the witnesses and the notary, introduce yourself to them. Make sure they introduce themselves to each other.
- Explain to the witnesses and the notary that you will be signing a will in the presence of the witnesses, and, at the end of the signing, you will be asking the notary to notarize the affidavit which is the last page of the will.
- Show the affidavit to the notary and the witnesses, giving each of them an opportunity to read it. Explain that the witnesses will be signing the affidavit under oath and that the affidavit will be considered their testimony. After they have read the affidavit and heard this explanation, put the affidavit back at the end of the simple will.
- Show your photo ID to the notary and ask the witnesses to show their photo IDs to the notary as well.
- Explain that it is very important that the witnesses watch you while you are applying your signature to the will and just as important that they watch each other while they are applying their signatures to the will.
- Explain that it is very important that the will-signing be completed without interruption. Explain that if anybody must step away during the signing process, the whole process must immediately stop until the person can return.
- Explain that all of the dates written onto the will and the signatures must be written using a ballpoint pen with blue or black ink.
- Assign the role of “first witness” to one of your witnesses and “second witness” to the other witness. Make sure that the witnesses know which role you assigned them.
- Ask if everyone is ready. Do not proceed until both witnesses and the notary say they are ready.
After you have completed each of the above steps, with both witnesses and the notary having said they are ready, you will follow the below numbered steps, in order. Be sure that each person writing on the will uses a ballpoint pen with blue or black ink to do so.
Take your time during this process to make sure you do not accidentally skip any of these steps.
- Gather all the pages of your printed simple will, in order.
- Hold all of the pages of your simple will together and tell the witnesses and notary that the document is your last will and testament.
- While the witnesses and the notary are watching you, write your initials on the bottom of every page of your simple will on the small line labeled “Initials.” Your initials should be the first letter of your first, middle, and last name or, if you do not have a middle name, then just the first letter of your first and last name.
- On the second-to-last page of the simple will (the page immediately before the affidavit), find the place for the date above your signature line. Use the pen to write in the current date. Then, while the witnesses and the notary are watching you, use the pen to sign your name on your signature line below the date.
- Hand the page you just signed to the first witness. Ask the first witness to read the paragraph under your signature, to write the current date in the space provided beneath that paragraph, and to sign the page on the line for “FIRST WITNESS.” Make sure that the second witness watches as the first witness signs the page.
- After the first witness signs the page, hand the same page to the second witness. Ask the second witness to read the paragraph under your signature and to sign the page on the line for “SECOND WITNESS.” Make sure that the first witness watches as the second witness signs the page.
- Turn to the last page of the simple will, the affidavit. Give the notary an opportunity to put the witnesses under oath.
- Ask the first witness to sign the affidavit on the line for “FIRST WITNESS,” to write the name of the city where the first witness lives, and to neatly print the first witness’s name on the line labeled “PRINT NAME” just below where the first witness signed the affidavit.
- Ask the second witness to sign the affidavit on the line for “SECOND WITNESS,” to write the name of the city where the second witness lives, and to neatly print the second witness’s name on the line labeled “PRINT NAME” just below where the second witness signed the affidavit.
- In a previous version of our simple will template, there was a space designated for you, as testator, to date and sign at the bottom of the affidavit. Disregard this step and move onto the next step unless you are working with that version of the template. After both witnesses have signed the affidavit, find the paragraph at the bottom of the affidavit with the empty line for you to write the date. Write the current date on that line. Then sign your name at the bottom of the affidavit on the signature line above your name.
- Give the notary an opportunity to ask the witnesses whether they swear that the contents of the affidavit are true. Then ask the notary to sign and date the affidavit in the space provided for the notary, to write in the date the notary’s commission expires, and to apply the notary’s stamp or seal to the page.
Once each of the above steps is successfully completed, your simple will is executed and ready to be stored. Be sure to thank the notary and the witnesses before they go.
Mistakes are not uncommon at will signings. Often a mistake is as simple as someone writing the date incorrectly or signing their name in the wrong spot. If somebody writes something incorrectly onto the will, you should discard the page with the mistake and start the signing process over again with a clean copy of the page. (This is why we recommend having extra copies of the will at hand.) If you did not bring an extra copy of the will to the signing meeting, you will need to reschedule the meeting so you can get a new copy printed. If you notice a mistake in the text of the will itself, you will need to edit the simple will template and reprint any pages that have been changed, then schedule a new signing meeting.
Restarting the signing process with a clean and correct page that has no mistakes on it is the only way you should correct a mistake in the simple will. Do not attempt to correct the mistake by crossing out text or writing by hand anything further onto the will itself, and never leave a written mistake uncorrected. A mistake, even a simple one, could lead to a will contest and your simple will being invalidated.
Making Copies of an Executed Will
You are free to make copies of your executed simple will. You might, for example, want to make a copy for yourself if you decide to store the original signed simple will in a place where you will not easily be able to access it. Note, however, that a photocopy is almost never a legally acceptable replacement for the original signed simple will. Except under extremely narrow circumstances (such as when the original will has been lost or destroyed without being revoked, and even then only in limited cases), a probate court will not accept a photocopy of the original signed will.
Storing Your Executed Will
You should store the original signed simple will in a cool, dry place where it will not be exposed to moisture, high humidity, or extreme temperatures. It should also be stored in a place where those who are alive after you have passed away will be able to find and access it.
If you store your original signed simple will in a place where others will not be able to find it quickly and easily after you pass away, you should take steps to help them find it. We recommend you put a note in a folder labeled “Will” (or the like) inside your file cabinet that explains where the original signed will is located. For example, if you decide to deposit your original signed will in a county will repository, you should write a note saying so and store the note in your personal file cabinet at home.
We recommend that you store only the final signed version of your will, not any earlier unsigned versions. You should destroy or mark as “revoked” any earlier drafts of the will so they cannot be mistaken for your intended final will.
Note that if you decided to keep a writing disposing of tangible personal property, you should store that writing in the place you wrote in your will.
Below is a description of the pros and cons of common places for storing original signed wills.
Perhaps the most common location to store an original signed will is in a file cabinet in your home where you store your other important paper records. The benefits of using a file cabinet are that the will will be easily accessible, and people are likely to look in your file cabinet for your will after you have passed away. A major risk of using a file cabinet is that other people who you do not want to see your will, family members in particular, may have an easy time accessing your file cabinet. Another risk of using a file cabinet is that you and the contents of your file cabinet might both perish in the same house fire, flood, or other catastrophic event. If you and your original signed will are lost in the same event, it may be difficult or impossible for your heirs and beneficiaries to prove in court what your will said.
Another common place to store an original signed will is in a fireproof safe. Fireproof safes have many of the same benefits as file cabinets, except that they are harder for others to access casually, and they are more likely to protect their contents in the event of a fire or flood. The major risk of keeping your original signed will in a safe is that others may have difficulty opening your safe after you pass away. If you plan to store your original signed will in a safe, you need to ensure that others will be able to open the safe after you pass away.
Safe Deposit Boxes
We recommend against storing your original signed will in a safe deposit box for several reasons, the most significant being that it can be very difficult for any other person to access your safe deposit box after you have died. The bank or other company holding a safe deposit box may ask for a judge’s order, requiring a special court proceeding, before allowing anyone other than a personal representative to open a deceased person’s safe deposit box. Of course, the person you appointed as your personal representative in your simple will cannot receive that appointment until your simple will is presented to the court.
County clerks in Washington State maintain official will repositories where any person may store their original will in exchange for a small fee. A will repository is often a good place to store your original will if you plan to reside for a long time in the county where the repository is located. If you decided to keep a writing disposing of tangible personal property, then you will not be able to store the writing with the will in a will repository.
Bad Storage Ideas
Your signed original will cannot do anybody any good if it cannot be found after you pass away. The worst place to store your will is any place where it will be hard or impossible to find. Here are some examples of places you definitely should not store your signed original will:
- in your refrigerator or freezer
- in one of many boxes tucked away in your garage, attic, or closet
- in a rented storage unit
- in a stack of other papers
- on the kitchen table
- in the glove compartment of your car
- in a secret hiding place
- in some other person’s home
- anywhere near a humidifier
Don’t Forget to Handle Your Nonprobate Assets
As we mentioned earlier, your simple will is not used to control who will receive your nonprobate assets after you pass away. That means even after your simple will is fully executed, you still have other steps to take to make sure that each of your nonprobate assets will be distributed as you intend.
When to Update Your Simple Will
Estate planning, including the preparation of a simple will, is an ongoing process that does not end just because you finalized your will. Your life circumstances will continue to change after you execute your simple will, just as they did before. You will likely have new additions to your family, have friends or relatives who pass away, and experience changes in your financial state. After some time, the decisions you wrote into your simple will might not make as much sense anymore, and a will update becomes necessary. Even if nothing significant in your life has changed, the law changes, and changes in the law might affect the choices you wrote into your simple will.
There is no exact right answer for how often you should consider updating your simple will. At the very least, you should review your simple will every five years. We recommend that you mark your calendar five years out, as soon as you execute your simple will, as a reminder to review it again in five years’ time.
There are some events in life that should immediately lead you to review your simple will. If any of these events occur in your life, we recommend that you either contact an attorney or return to these instructions and use them to determine whether your simple will should be replaced with a new will:
- You change your mind about who you would like to receive property under your simple will.
- You change your mind about who should serve as one of the fiduciaries appointed under your simple will.
- You marry or register as a domestic partner.
- You divorce or become legally separated from your spouse or registered domestic partner.
- You move out of the State of Washington.
- You become the owner of additional real estate.
- You have or adopt a child.
- Any of your descendants has or adopts a child.
- Any of the people you named in your simple will, whether as a beneficiary or as a fiduciary, passes away.
- Your net worth reaches a point where you think your estate may have to pay estate tax.
- You believe you will need to receive Medicaid assistance.
- By agreement or court order you become obligated to include certain terms in your will.
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