Will and testament – definition and meaning

Your will and testament, also called your ‘testament’‘last will and testament’, or just ‘will’, is a document that states what your final wishes are. Specifically, it states the names of people, organizations, and other entities that will receive your **estate after you die.

** Your estate is all the money, property, and other assets that you own – especially at death.

Your will may also include written instructions on what should happen to your body after your death.

According to Dictionary.Cambridge.org, your ‘last will and testament’ is:

“Your written instructions about what should happen to your body and the things that you own after your death.”

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Image created by Market Business News.

Will vs. testament

Strictly speaking, a will was historically limited to include the **real property while testament applied just to the dispositions of personal property. That is why the term last will and testament emerged.

** Real property means ‘real estate’, ‘realty’, i.e. any property attached directly to the land, and also the land itself.

However, as historical records show that the two terms have been regularly used interchangeably, the terms ‘will’ and ‘testament’ today have exactly the same meaning.

Terms used in a will and testament

A will and testament has a set of standard terms that refer to different people, entities and actions.

Administrator: this person is either appointed or petitions to administer an estate if somebody dies with no will (intestate).

Bequest: a gift from the deceased person’s personal property, historically not cash/money.

Beneficiaries: these are the individuals, charities, and other entities that are identified in the will to receive the testator’s property and possessions after death.

Unusual Wills
Some people execute unusual wills. In 2004, billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley left instructions in her last will and testament for her $4 billion fortune to be spent caring for dogs. ‘Trouble’, her 9-year-old Maltese, received $12 million. Her grandchildren were instructed to visit their father’s grave at least once a year in order to inherit their much smaller share.

Executor: this is the person named to administer the estate, i.e. to make sure that the beneficiaries listed in the will receive what the document stipulates. The executor is generally subject to the supervision of the **probate court.

** The probate court is a special court that deals with the property and debts of an individual who has died.

In the past, if the executor was female, she would be referred to as the executrix. Today, the majority of wills use the term executor for both men and women.

To Bequeath: this verb means to ‘give’ or ‘leave to somebody’ after death. For example, the testator may have stated: “I bequeath my art collection to the Oxford Museum.”

Custodian: an adult who is assigned the task of managing property inherited by a minor until he or she comes of age (becomes an adult).

Failed Gift: a gift stated in the will and testament that could not be given to the beneficiary because he or she died before the will was read out, and the testator did not state what should happen.

Intestate: as a noun, it means a person who has died either with no will, or without a valid one, as in “What would the intestate have wanted?” (What would the person who died without a will have wanted?). Testate is the opposite – an individual who had created a valid will before death.

When used as an adjective, as in “He died intestate,” it means that the person did not make a will before he died.

Testator: this is the author of the will; the person who expresses their wishes as to whom the estate is to be distributed after death.

Trustee: a person who has legal authority over a trust’s assets. A successor trustee is somebody who takes over as trustee if the original one can no longer serve.

Dorothy L Sayers - Will and Testament quote
Dorothy Leigh Sayers is a British crime writer, playwright, poet, translator, essayist, Christian humanist, and student of classical and modern languages. She wrote the series of novels and short stories set between the two World Wars that feature Lord Peter Wimsey, an English aristocrat and amateur sleuth. (Image: adapted from Wikipedia)

Make sure it’s a valid will!

You should take great care when writing your last will and testament. Most jurisdictions require that testators must follow specific steps to properly execute their will and testament.

If you do not execute your will in the proper manner, there is a risk that the whole document becomes invalid.

Regarding wills and testaments in California, USA, Creighton Law Offices writes the following on its website:

“Indeed, the failure to execute one’s last will and testament in the proper manner is one of the most common reasons for invalidating the last will and testament in its entirety.”

“In addition, if you wish to make changes to your last will and testament – even changes that appear simple to you – you must do so in very precise ways else that particular change or even the entire document will be invalidated.”

Facebook, the social networking website, has a feature – called ‘Legacy Contact‘ – that allows users to decide what happens to their account after death.