Making a will

A will sets out in a legal way what you want to happen to your ‘estate’ (all the things you own) after you die. If you do not have a will it is possible that the people you want to inherit will not be entitled to receive anything. 75% of parents of young children do not have an up-to-date will. Making a will is your chance to make sure that, after you die, the people you care about receive what you wish them to and helps to avoid any disputes after your death.

For example, unless you have a will, a person with whom you are living but to whom you are not married will not be entitled to any of what you leave. There is a myth that there is such a thing as ‘common law marriage’ but this does not operate when it comes to inheriting.

For more information on the legal differences between marriage/civil partnership and living together, click here.

Without a will, even a spouse or civil partner is not necessarily entitled to receive all of your estate and you may find your money going to other relatives.

Your will should include:

  • Who you want to inherit anything you own (this can be different things for different people but should take into account those who rely on you financially)
  • Who you want to look after your children if you die before they are 18 (see also the section on appointing guardians
  • What should happen if there are any changes of circumstance (for example if someone you intended to inherit something dies before you do)
  • Who you would like to make sure your wishes are carried out (your ‘executor(s)'), both immediately after your death and for the longer term (for example, establishing a trust to look after money for your children). These need not necessarily be the same person, nor the same people who are guardians for your children. They need to be people you trust to make what you want to happen, actually happen – so they also need to be willing to tackle the tasks involved. They do not need to have any legal knowledge (but may need to take legal advice if things are complicated). They will need to apply for a ‘Grant of Probate’ – this means they are entitled (the ‘grant’ bit) to handle the will and carry out its terms (the ‘probate’ bit): more information can be found here . They will also have to check whether there is any Inheritance Tax owed and pay this out of your estate.

This government website carries a very clear short guide to what you need to do to write a will. The website of Citizen’s Advice also covers the key questions and has much helpful advice.

You can write your own will if you have very simple arrangements and have it witnessed by two people who will not receive anything under the terms of your will. There are some free forms available on the internet but, because of the internet’s lack of geographical boundaries, please do check you are downloading versions for the correct country.

However, most people will use legal advice to make sure that their wishes are clearly set out. Solicitors are very used to making wills and can offer advice to ensure that what you want to happen after you die does happen. They may offer a fixed-fee service if your will is likely to be pretty straightforward. Solicitors will also store your will securely. If you have family and/or assets in another country, legal advice is probably a good idea. The Law Society has an accreditation scheme called WIQS (Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme). Firms with this accreditation are recognised as having expertise in wills and related matters, and you can search for them here.

In November each year, the charity Will Aid arranges with local solicitors to write a will in return for a donation to one of nine national charities (including NSPCC, Save the Children, British Red Cross). The suggested donation is £95 for a single will and £150 for a couple (a so-called ‘mirror’ will). Participating solicitors (who receive nothing themselves for this service) can be found on their website where there is also a really useful guide to what to include.

If the idea of donating to a charity that supports bereaved children and young people appeals to you, consider asking the solicitor preparing your will to make a donation to your local child bereavement service (this can be found here). Or to the work of the Childhood Bereavement Network who have developed Plan If.  Or you could leave a bequest to such a charity in your will.

There are also Will Writing services that are not operated by legal firms; if you decide to use one of these, check that they are registered with the Institute of Professional Will Writers.

You can keep a copy of your will with your other Plan If documents but most people use the services of solicitors or will writing services to do this, especially if they want to keep the details confidential. You simply need to indicate in your Plan If where your will is lodged and how to access it.

If you die without making a will

If you die without making a will (‘intestate’), the people you expect to inherit, may not do so. For example, if you live with someone, even for many years, but are not married or in a civil partnership with them, and die without leaving a will, your partner may receive nothing and your entire estate is likely to go to your relatives – maybe a distant cousin.

When it comes to property, it depends on who owns it. If, you and your partner are ‘beneficial joint tenants’ on the paperwork, the surviving joint owner would inherit the property if one died, regardless of marital status. If you and your partner are ‘beneficial tenants in common’, your share would pass according to your will – which may be to your partner, or to someone else. If you own a house in your sole name and have no will, your unmarried partner does not inherit it, however many years you have lived together, and may have to leave.  It is so much easier to make a will stating who you wish to inherit. (And/or marry or form a civil partnership!)

Lasting Powers of Attorney

At the same time as writing your will, you may want to add an additional safeguard for situations in which you are alive but need someone to handle your medical and/or financial affairs. People usually think about appointing (‘giving power of’) an ‘attorney’ (someone who will carry out your wishes) when they are getting older but it can be a really useful ‘power’ (right to act on behalf of) for everyone to have in place: for example, if you are alive but have become unable to make decisions. You need to appoint the attorney while you are fully capable of making decisions.

There are two types: ‘Lasting Powers of Attorney for Health and Welfare’ and ‘Lasting Powers of Attorney for Property and Financial Affairs’. Having these in place means that someone else can continue to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated (for example in an accident).

There is an excellent explanatory guide to the process here

Inheritance Tax

This is owed on any ‘assets’ there may be over a certain limit (currently £325,000). ‘Assets’ include the value of your house, bank accounts and items of value, such as jewellery or vehicles. More information can be found here.