For more than half the population, writing their last will and testament falls into the category of things that they know they should do, but haven’t done yet. And there are many reasons why people don’t make wills. A common mistake is to assume they don’t need one, not realising that dying intestate — the legal term for not having a will — can mean that even the closest people in their life may inherit nothing.
Some may be put off because the idea feels morbid, or even irrelevant because they are young and in good health. Others may assume the process is time-consuming and complex, while some may worry about getting their wishes ‘right’ and delay making a will until they are absolutely sure they know what they want their will to say.
But if you haven’t made a will or your circumstances change, and you need to update an existing will, it’s important not to put it off. Many are surprised at how straightforward the process can be, at a minimum, a simple will states your final wishes and has two witnesses to make it a legally binding document. But with professional help making arrangements, even for complex estate and financial affairs, is not difficult. And it can be a surprisingly positive experience, helping you to identify the people and assets that are most important to you, and ensuring they are taken care of after you have gone.
But the benefits of a will don’t end there.
It avoids the problems that can arise from dying intestate
Many don’t make a will as they don’t realise how the law allocates an estate or think about what might happen afterwards. Intestacy laws cover a wide variety of permutations and, depending on the size and value of the estate, may divide it between people. However, it follows the pattern of a married or civil partner, then children, inheriting. And it’s not hard to imagine how this might result in situations you do not want.
For example, unmarried couples have no rights, so no matter how long and happy the relationship, a partner might find themselves without a home or anything to remember you and your time together by. And being a married couple can create problems. If your spouse inherits everything and then meets and marries a new partner, it might mean that when they die your estate passes to their new spouse and family, without your children getting a fair share.
By making a will, you can safeguard against such events. You can even structure it to ensure that people can benefit during their life but pass it on to someone else. You could, for example, place your property in a trust, so your partner, whether married or not, can reside there, but protects the property for your children.
A will ensures your wishes are followed
Your will is not just about who gets your personal property. It is an expression of your wishes. Many use their will to leave instructions for their funeral arrangements, even what happens to their digital assets and social media accounts. But you can include a variety of other wishes in your gifts.
It might be that you want to simply give your beneficiaries a gift, in which case a will can simply express your desires. However, you can also use a will, sometimes combined with structures like trusts, to add your wishes. You might, for example, want to leave your property to your children, but allow your partner to remain there until they pass away or choose to leave. Or you might want to leave funds to minors with the condition that the money children receive is spent on their education.
With a will, you do not just get to decide who gets what, but you can also get to decide how it is administered. Allowing you to distribute your estate in the same way as you might have given gifts while alive.
A will can help prevent family disputes
Dealing with the death of a loved one is an emotional time. And often, without a will, how the estate is handled can result in arguments.
These can be about big and small items. While one family might disagree about whether a house is sold or not, or how the proceeds are shared between children and grandchildren, others might find themselves falling out about who gets small heirlooms that might have an emotional value that far outweighs their financial value. Frequently, these arguments rely on people’s belief that they know what their family members would have wanted.
A will can help avoid these arguments. Even if family members may disagree with the contents, they cannot dispute they are your wishes. Indeed, when it comes to making specific gifts, it can have the opposite effect, allowing you to express your love and pass on items that have meaning to you both.
You get to choose who handles your estate
Although not required in a will, most people appoint executors. These are the people who will determine how the estate is handled and can decide how to address any issues where there might be disagreement. Without executors, your beneficiaries will have to jointly manage the estate, which increases the risk of disagreements, disputes, and rifts in your family.
Choosing your executors carefully means you don’t have someone who is just following your wishes, but also someone you can trust to interpret them when decisions must be made. Appointing a professional executor, like a solicitor or estate planning professional, can also have benefits because they can bring independence and make decisions that those more closely involved may find difficult.
The role of executor can be difficult and involve a lot of work, especially if your estate is large or complex. But by choosing one or more, you can have confidence that your estate will be properly handled.
You can make sure that those who are left are looked after
Sadly, people do die when they still have caring duties. A will can appoint guardians for your children to continue providing the love and support needed.
When no guardian is named, a court must appoint someone to look after minor children. However, that process can take time, leaving the child in an unsettled situation. It is often the case that a guardian is quickly found informally, and the court process simply means uncertainty until it is formalised. But in some situations, it can mean a child passing through foster homes until a permanent situation is agreed.
Naming a guardian in a will means you can have certainty that your children will be looked after. And you can make provision in your will to provide for and support them as they grow. You can also ensure that your children are raised how you would like. While courts will typically look to the family members as guardians, for example, you might prefer close friends who share your values.
You can minimise the inheritance tax payable
Unfortunately, HMRC wants your money even after you die. While inheritance tax was once seen as something that was only paid by the very wealthy, that has changed. The threshold at which it’s paid — currently as low as £325,000 — has not kept pace with rising prices, especially property values, meaning many people’s estates will be liable for tax.
If you leave everything to a spouse no inheritance tax is paid. But if you don’t have a spouse, or want to leave something to your children, you might want to consider how you can pay less inheritance tax. While there are some limited reliefs, like if you leave a large gift to a charity, in practice inheritance tax means gifting 40% of your estate over the threshold to the government.
Using your will as part of an estate planning strategy can help to reduce inheritance tax and protect your assets. For example, you can place assets into a trust while you are alive, so you can continue to benefit from them, even though the asset’s ownership has passed on. It means that more of your estate goes to the people you chose, rather than being taken as tax.
Making a valid will is easy
Sadly, around 60% of UK adults do not have a will. And while, for many, the idea of making a will can be understandably off-putting, those feelings are temporary, but the peace of mind that follows is permanent.
The simple fact is, whatever your position, not having a will is the worst possible situation to leave your loved ones. Especially when making your own will can be a simple and straightforward affair. You can even use an off-the-shelf will kit if you have two independent witnesses.
However, if you really want to ensure your will covers all eventualities, looks after your children and other dependents and reduces the amount of inheritance tax your estate pays, it’s worth investing in a professionally written will. A professional service such as The Right Will can go through your situation with you to ensure you have considered everything and have a will that you can be confident looks after those you leave behind.