20 February 2019

The importance of writing a will

According to research 60% of UK adults haven’t made a will, and that goes up to 72% among 35-54-year-olds1. If that includes you, that should be of concern, as a will allows you to have control over what happens to your property, money and belongings after you die, and to see that it’s distributed the way you would wish it to be.

Why should you write a will?

The main concern for most people when writing a will is to make sure their money and possessions go to the people and organisations they want them to. Though there are other good reasons to make a will.

Reducing stress for your next of kin

After the death of a loved one, the amount of bureaucracy and arrangements to be made can be overwhelming.

Avoiding arguments

Your family and other beneficiaries will have your wishes clearly laid out, leaving less room for disputes over who should get what.

Making provision for your children

If you have children under 18, you can specify who you would like to become their guardian, rather than entrusting the decision to the courtroom.

Making your funeral requests clear

A will is also where you can set out the kind of funeral you’d like, from whether you’d prefer to be buried or cremated, to your choice of music.

What happens if you die without writing a will?

In formal terms, you’ve died intestate, and what you leave becomes subject to intestacy laws. That could mean everything goes to the state if no heir is found.

The intestacy laws are designed to help decide who’s entitled to your estate under the rules of inheritance. A significant disadvantage is that your estate may not pass to the people you want to benefit. For example, if you were married or had a civil partner, there’s no guarantee your children or grandchildren would receive anything unless you leave an estate worth over £250,000. You have no automatic legal claim on an inheritance if you were the deceased’s partner but weren’t married or in a civil partnership with them, nor if your relationship to the deceased was that of a friend, carer or relative by marriage.

You can find out more about the rules of intestacy at GOV.UK 

When is the best time to be writing a will?

Ideally, you should make your will at the earliest opportunity. In practice, though, people tend to write theirs when they hit key points in life, like buying their first home or having children. These are the points when you start to accumulate an estate and have dependents for the first time. And that tends to focus the mind on what will happen to them when you’re no longer around.

Other events that may start this train of thought are the death of a close relative or getting married or divorced, as they act as a reminder that life can be unpredictable and it’s a good idea to make provision for the future.

Ultimately, it’s wise to be proactive as making a will ensures your estate goes to the people you want.

How to make a will

A will simply sets out your wishes for what you’d like to happen to your estate after your death. But it is a legally binding document that has to be written in accordance with certain rules, so you can’t simply write something on a notepad and hope for the best.

For this reason, using a solicitor or a reputable online will provider that uses legal experts can make good sense, to be sure you’ve got it right and met all the necessary criteria to ensure your will is valid.

If your estate isn’t complex and lies below the current Inheritance Tax threshold of £325,000, though, you can make your will yourself, with the help of a will-writing service. You can find will writers through recognised trade bodies like the Institute of Professional Will Writers or the Society of Will Writers.

What to include

The more detail you include about your wishes in your will, the more you reduce the chances of confusion and misunderstanding. The areas you should be sure to cover include:

  • who you want to be the beneficiaries of your will
  • who your chosen executor is
  • who you want to take care of any children under 18
  • what you would like to do if the beneficiaries die before you do.

Make sure to say what you would like done with anything left in your estate after your beneficiaries have received what you’ve left to them. Otherwise anything left could go to the state.

Making it legal

To make your will official as a legal document it should:

  • be made in writing
  • clarify it was made voluntarily, when you were of sound mind
  • be made by someone over 18
  • signed and dated by you in the presence of two witnesses, who must also sign it in turn in your presence.

It’s worth bearing in mind that your witnesses can’t be beneficiaries of the will. These rules apply to the law of England and Wales.

Choosing your executor

The executor is the person who will carry out your wishes, as laid out in your will, after your death. Being an executor can mean taking on a lot of responsibility for making sure the estate is distributed correctly, paying off any debts, and mediating in any disputes. Most people ask family or friends, but if you have a complex estate, it can be a good idea to consider a professional executor, such as a solicitor.

You can also decide to have more than one executor. Many people appoint two, allowing them to share the burden of responsibility.

Can you change your will?

Generally, it’s a good idea to take a look at your will every five years or so, to see whether anything’s changed or you need to update it.

You might also want to review your will after major events in your life, like a marriage, divorce or having children.

The only way to make minor amends to an existing will, like changing your executor, is with an additional document called a codicil, which will have to be signed and witnessed in the same way as the original will. Alternatively some online will providers include this service for a small fee.

You can also replace an existing will with a new one. To be sure that the latest will is the only one considered after death, you should destroy any previous wills and include the phrase ‘All other wills that pre-date this are null and void from this date’ in the new will.

Discussing your wishes with your loved ones

It’s never an easy conversation to have, but talking to those close to you about your wishes after your death can help prevent any arguments or misunderstandings after the event. It’s also an opportunity to find out what they value and might like to be left.

Writing a will is part of making your passing a little easier for your loved ones, and reducing the stress of sorting out your belongings and your estate.

We also have articles you can read about the bigger subject of discussing your death with loved ones and how to make your funeral arrangements.

1From research carried out by Unbiased.co.uk in October 2017.

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