The last will & testament: A look back

It's been called one of the most important legal documents you will ever have. Yet where the will came from and how it's been used over the centuries is a mystery. Discover a little history of the last will and testament—including a look back at the oldest known will, and the shortest, longest and most beautifully written wills. Plus, find out what Shakespeare left his heirs and when is the right time to do your will

Ready to start your estate plan?

Excellent TrustScore 4.5 out of 5
1,818 reviews Trustpilot
Woman reading with child sitting on floor

by Janet Yoo
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

In the days of yore, the word “will” was used to describe real property, and “testament” was used to refer to personal property that one wished to leave behind upon his or her passing. Today, the word “will” encompasses both meanings (with rare exceptions), and is used to refer to anything left to beneficiaries by the deceased, whether personal belongings or real property.

Just how old is old?

The oldest known will was found in a tomb excavation in Kahun, Egypt, and dates back to 2500 B.C. The deceased left all of his property to his wife, Teta, but contained some stipulations, such as not pulling down the houses. It was witnessed by two scribes, and was, as the New York Times stated, “shockingly modern.” It was so modern in form that it might nearly have been granted probate today. Although wills did not come into vogue for a long while in the West, this oldest found will indicates that such a system of settlement by deed or will was long practiced in the East.

The long and short of it

The shortest wills were each three words long, one found in India, the other in Germany. The latter of the two succinctly (and sufficiently) read, “All to wife.” In sharp contrast, the lengthiest will known to date was written by Frederica Cook of England (who was married to the son of the famous explorer, Sir Francis Cook). She left behind 1,066 pages to be filed for probate.

The most beautiful will

For most people, writing a will can be a dry, legalistic affair. Not so for one attorney-writer, who, in 1898, crafted what is considered the most beautiful will ever written. Granted, the will was for a fictional character; nonetheless, it was widely circulated, becoming a classic for generations of attorneys. Rather than bequeathing real or personal property, he gave to good fathers and mothers all the “good little words of praise” and pet names to be used “justly but generously as the needs of their children shall require.” And for children, he left exclusively—but only for childhood—the dandelions and daisies of the fields “with the right to play among them freely …”

Even the Bard had one

The will of William Shakespeare, who is regarded by many as the greatest writer in the English language, came into existence a few weeks prior to his death. Born in April 1564, he died in 1616 at age 52. Speculation is that he made arrangements to see his attorney, somehow sensing his impending demise, to prepare his last will and testament. In his will, the bulk of his estate is left to his oldest daughter, Susanna. There was no mention of his wife Anne, with the exception of leaving her his second-best bed. (Worry not—she was likely entitled to one-third of his estate, as the law dictated.) Though some view this seemingly small and strange inheritance as a slight, many argue it contained sentimental value, as the second-best bed was the marriage bed. The best bed was reserved for guests.

What time is the right time?

Will writers in the past often waited until near the time or hour of their death to put together their will. At that time, paper and writing implements (nibs, ink, and such) were expensive as were attorneys (some things haven't changed). Only a certain class of people would likely have even made a will. Nowadays, though, many wills are created when people are healthy, rather than when they are ill, emotionally stressed, or pressured by family. Rather than something you “have to do,” creating a will can be a fun project, something that changes and grows as you do.


Ensure your loved ones and property are protected START MY ESTATE PLAN

About the Author

Janet Yoo

Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.