Can You Write Your Will on a Napkin?

We’ve all see it in the movies: the will scribbled on the back of a napkin. But is it really as simple as that?

Is a will written on a napkin valid?

It happens more often than it should in our favourite films, shows, and and books.

Someone’s in a bind.

They snatch up a serviette.

Maybe tear a page from a book.

Or a nearby envelope.

They write their will like they’re signing their life away.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that will is going missing, only to reappear at the eleventh hour and save the day.

We roll our eyes, but we love it really. Even if we do think it all seems a little far-fetched. The real world doesn’t work that way. Wills are legal documents, after all, drawn up by solicitors and professional will-writers.

Can you write your will on a napkin? Or the back of an envelope? Or any other scrap of paper you have to hand?

Surprisingly, yes.

So, handwritten wills are legal?

A handwritten will is entirely legal – and it’s known as a ‘holographic will’, from the Greek: Holo meaning ‘whole’, graphic meaning ‘writing’.

That’s where every single section is written in your hand (unlike the sort of DIY, fill-in-the-blank, type-written wills you pick up in WH Smith’s).

Technically, at least, if that burger-stained napkin states your last will and testament, you’re golden.

However, there are a few caveats to doing so.
  • You probably shouldn’t do it

It’s not really a good idea to scribble your will in the heat of the moment. Call it the Jurassic Park principle: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

For starters, you should be taking time over your will. Even mutual wills, a simple two-way agreement that generally benefits the other party, should be considered with care. You’ll want to make it fair. You don’t want to miss out anything, or anyone. And no-one wants to deal with inheritance tax headaches.

Writing a will is also about offering security. It’s peace of mind for the future, knowing those you care for will be looked after. It’s your parting gift.

That security your loved ones rely on vanishes with back-of-a-fag-packet wills. They’re much more vulnerable to being contested – meaning your final wishes may not be carried out, and your family are left limbo, worrying whether they’ll even keep the house.

If you’re intent on drafting your own will, make sure you know the pros and cons of DIY wills and will-writing services.
  • It must be properly drawn up

All wills need to meet a few legal requirements (it’s all in the Wills Act 1837, if you’re interested). This is where many a DIY diner will can come unstuck.

A valid will is:
  • Written by someone 18 or over
  • Made voluntarily and in writing
  • Signed by you and two witnesses

In the absence of another will, you’d be classed as dying intestate. The state will then distribute your possessions according to the rules of intestacy, and it won’t matter what your final wishes were.

How ever you write a will, choose your witnesses carefully. They can’t be allowed to benefit from your will in any way.

Witnesses act as ‘proof’ the will is genuine if it’s challenged. They’re even more important for impromptu wills.
Because it’s not easy to prove that your homemade, handwritten will is an actual, final expression of wishes. Intentions versus ideas. It could just be a few thoughts you jotted down. No-one can be entirely sure.

That’s tricky, and it could lead to the will being contested or dismissed – and your witnesses must then state you knew what you were doing when you wrote it.

The Gazette, the UK’s official public record, reckons ‘holographic wills undoubtedly carry a higher risk of errors and potential complications. If worded by the testator without using legal terminology, ambiguity can arise and open up differing interpretations that might lead to contentious proceedings and a full or partial intestacy. Faulty spelling, punctuation and grammatical mistakes can add to this.’
  • It shouldn’t be done for high-value estates

If you have property, lots of money, own a business, or possess anything of serious value, you should always use a solicitor or will-writer. It’s just not worth the risk. Pure and simple.

You can also use your will to outline guardianship of your children. Nothing’s more valuable than that, so again, it’s best to put in place a will that leaves no room for doubt, if only for peace of mind.
  • That napkin probably won't last

Napkins aren’t known for their durability and longevity. They can just about withstand one hard wipe and it’s game over. Over time, the air’s going to degrade it, crumple it, warp your words, making them an entirely unsuitable canvas for will writing. If you’re sticking with that quick handwritten will, though, at least use a decent bit of A4.

Wills always need to be properly stored, too. It’s just like your birth certificate or your tax returns. You can keep them at home (but definitely get a safe, if you do), and sometimes solicitors and will-writers will offer storage solutions. And you just know someone's liable to toss a napkin, sheet of toilet roll, or used envelope right in the bin.
Wills aren’t super-expensive, and they’re a lot easier to sort out these days. You can even get your witnesses to sign during a video call.

When you’re ready to write your will, The Law Superstore will help you compare solicitors and will-writers to find the one that’s right for you.