Passing away is not something most of us want to think about. But planning ahead and writing a will could prove to be one of the best things you ever do for your loved ones.
What is a will?
Officially called your Last Will and Testament, your will lets you decide what happens to your money, property and possessions after you pass away. You list what you have in your estate and then decide how your estate is to be shared between beneficiaries - who gets what. A will includes:
- Who you want to benefit from your will (beneficiaries)
- Who should look after any children under 18, if you have them
- Who is going to sort out your estate and carry out your wishes listed in your will after you pass away (your executor)
- What happens if the people you want to benefit die before you
- Any other wishes you may have, for example whether you want to be buried or cremated
Implementing the actions contained in a will is called probate. It involves clearing all outstanding debts and distributing the remaining estate.
Do I need a will?
Probably, yes. You might think that wills are only necessary for rich people with lots of assets to pass on. But if you own a property, or have children, for example, writing a will is a vital part of your financial planning.
Without a will, you will die “intestate”, which may mean different people making claims that your money and property should go to them. This can leave your affairs in limbo for years, causing extra pain and stress for your grieving loved ones.
People who need wills include:
- Homeowners: if you own a property, you need to decide who gets it in the event of your death
- Unmarried couples: don't expect anything to go to your partner if you are unmarried and you don't make a will (unless you own a property as “joint tenants”, in which case your half will go to your partner)
- Married couples: your husband, wife or civil partner automatically becomes your heir when you get married or enter into a civil partnership. So if you want any of your things to go to someone else, you’ll need a will to prove it
- Divorcees: getting married invalidates any previous will you have made. But you’ll also need a new will if you get divorced
- Parents: it’s vital to protect the interests of your children by spelling out clearly what of yours they should get and when – as well as who you want to look after them if you die
How do I make a will?
Most people write a will with the help of a solicitor. The process costs between £100 and £200 for a single person’s will and between £150 and £300 for a will for a couple.
The benefits of using a solicitor include that you are protected if anything goes wrong and your will should be accurate and safely stored.
The government advises that you definitely use a solicitor if any of these apply:
- you share a property with someone who is not your husband, wife or civil partner
- you want to leave money or property to a dependant who cannot care for themselves
- you have several family members who may make a claim on your will, such as a second spouse or children from another marriage
- your permanent home is outside the UK
- you have property overseas
- you have a business
If you’re thinking of protecting your loved ones by writing a will, the good news is that each November is Will Aid month.
During the month of November, you can therefore apply for a solicitor to write you a will for the price of a voluntary donation to charity.
The suggested charitable donation is£95 for a single will or £150 for a couple’s will, to be split between charities such as ActionAid, Age UK, British Red Cross and NSPCC.
Visit www.willaid.org.uk or phone 0300 0309 558 to find your nearest participating solicitor.
Are there any other cheaper ways to make a will?
If you need to make a will outside Will Aid month, one way to cut the cost is to use an online will-writing service. But beware: there is currently no regulation to ensure such will writers do a good job.
If you choose this approach, it may therefore be sensible to choose one that is a member of the Institute of Professional Willwriters (IPW). Services of this kind are only really suitable if your affairs are relatively simple.
The same is true of the free will services offered by some insurers if you take out legal cover as part of your home or car insurance policy, as well as those offered by trade unions and employers.
What can be included in a will?
Wills are not just for the division of assets.
If, for example, you have children or step-children under the age of 18, your will should also include arrangements for them in the event of your death.
It can also specify who gets any pets, as well as what you want your funeral to be like. Other details you can specify in your will include who will carry out (execute) your wishes. This could be a trusted friend or relative, a bank or your solicitor (for a fee).
What will happen if I don’t have a will?
Writing a will allows you to decide how a number of things are dealt with when you pass away – as well as who you want to benefit from your estate.
Pass away without one, however, and your money, property and possessions will be split among your next of kin according to strict rules that could well contradict your wishes.
This is called dying intestate and can also lead to many years of legal wrangling for those left behind.
In extreme cases, your loved ones may even have to leave the family home because the money they should be getting is tied up and cannot be used to pay the bills. You will want to avoid this.
Are there any other advantages to having a will?
One added benefit of writing a will is that it can be used to minimise the inheritance tax owed by your heirs.
Those who stand to inherit will generally have to pay 40% inheritance tax on anything – including property – over the £325,000 threshold.
However, there are a number of steps you can take when writing a will to reduce this percentage.
For example, you could cut it to 36% of the total (over and above £325,000), by leaving 10% of your estate to charity.
Do I need to do anything else once I have a will?
Sorting out your finances after you pass away will be much easier and quicker if you have given your loved ones all the information they need. Read our advice on putting your finances in order ahead of a bereavement.