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“Last Will and Testament” Origin

Have you ever wondered why the dispositive instrument in which you express your wishes is called a “Last Will and Testament?” Few people, including Estate Planning attorneys, know the reason. In fact, the history is a little muddy. Occasionally, clients will ask this question. Now you’ll know the answer!

It’s thought that the “Last Will” part comes from English common in which the testator was expressing what they “willed” to have happen to their realty. It appears that, originally, this was intended for those without heirs. The laws at the time devised real property according to the bloodline. So, it was only when there was no bloodline a Last Will became relevant. The “testament” was the portion intended to transfer personal property.

The term became combined with “and Testament” after the Norman invasion of England by the French Duke of Normandy, who became known as William the Conqueror after the battle of Hastings (and his later coronation) in 1066. The old English common law and the French civil law became somewhat blended and the terms were combined for clarity.

In a recent episode of Jeopardy, the clue was “After the Norman Conquest, lawyers made sure they were clear with ‘Last Will (an Anglo-Saxon word) &’ this French-derived term?” The contestant correctly replied “Testament.”

The term dates back a millennium. But the document type is still in use to this day, as we know. Often it is combined with a Trust, to avoid the process of probate, among other reasons. A Will which sends the assets to a Trust is called a “Pour-Over Will.”

Next time one of your clients asks why their “Will” is called a “Last Will and Testament” you’ll have a story to tell, dating back nearly 1,000 years. And you can weave into the story the fact that people have been doing Estate Planning long before that. The Code of Justinian recognized Wills in ancient Rome. It’s likely dispositive instruments have existed long before that.

Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128