Writing a will may seem like a sad thought, and many continually put it off: research typically shows that less than half of UK adults have a will. However, even a simple will provides the peace of mind that your loved ones will be supported and won’t have the stress of working out what you may have wanted, at an already upsetting time.
A will is a legal document that expresses the final wishes of the writer for the distribution of their property and assets, known as their estate. It ensures that you, rather than the law, decide what happens to your estate and that your wishes are honoured after your death.
What happens if you don’t have a will?
Many believe their situation is straightforward and they do not need a will. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Dying intestate — without a will — means a probate court decides who gets what, but that court does not necessarily reflect modern life.
Intestacy rules, essentially, look for a nuclear family to automatically inherit. Your spouse or civil partner will get the first £270,000 of the estate and personal possessions and only half of everything over that amount. The rest is divided equally between any children. If you have no children, your surviving spouse gets all the assets, and if your spouse has already died, it goes to their children. If you have no spouse or children, then other family members like surviving parents, siblings, and even nieces and nephews inherit.
But there are obvious problems with this. Only a marriage or civil partnership is recognised. An unmarried partner, even a partner you have a child with, gets nothing. Plus, children with an ex-partner can miss out. If you have remarried – your entire estate can go entirely to your new spouse, effectively disinheriting any children you have with a former partner or spouse.
Although there are ways for people to claim from an estate in these situations through probate proceedings, they are time-consuming and costly. They inevitably take a heavy emotional toll on those involved as they debate exactly what you did and did not want.
What are the benefits of having a will?
Having a will means your express wishes — not a legal process or court ruling — are followed. It provides clarity for those left behind and can help to avoid family disputes over who gets what.
A basic will can be as simple as leaving everything to a single person. But wills can also include specific wishes. There might be people you want to remember in a will, or charities you would like to support. It also allows you to distribute specific assets and make some conditions.
Many have family heirlooms they want to pass to specific children, for example, or you may want a child’s inheritance to be used for a specific purpose, like education. And where children are involved, the will can appoint a legal guardian, giving them the authority to take responsibility for your children until they are adults.
How to create your own will
To be legally valid, a will must follow several rules, but there are different ways of creating one.
The simplest form of will is the holographic will. A holographic will is just a handwritten statement of your wishes. While these can be valid wills, they carry the risk that, unless you are a legal professional, errors in how the will is written might cause problems.
Another option is a DIY will, which can be bought on the high street and online. These can help with structure, wording, and even provide tips. But they still carry the risk of mistakes. An added danger of online options is that the format and advice may be for an entirely different jurisdiction.
Will writing services offer an affordable and accessible way to prepare a will. However, thorough research is required, as will writing services are not currently regulated in the UK, so look for indications of their quality. The Right Will’s directors, for example, are all members of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, and the firm partners with Countrywide Tax and Trust Corporation to provide legal services.
Using a solicitor is another common way of preparing a will. Solicitors must be regulated by the law society to practice, so there is a mechanism to seek redress if needed. It is, however, the most expensive way to write a will.
Whichever way you choose, there are a few things that you should do.
First, seek advice from a professional. A professional’s guidance will ensure your will is sound and your wishes are followed. They will also help you think through different eventualities you must cover.
Second, identify your executors and, if necessary, guardians for any minor children. The role of the executor is an important one. Executors are responsible for ensuring that the wishes set out in your will are met and for handling your estate property until your will is fully executed. An executor can be a beneficiary of your will, and it’s common to name people who you trusted, such as partners or friends, to this role.
You can appoint guardians in your Will who will be responsible for any children you have under 18. It’s important to consider whether they could look after children (or more children if they already have them) and if the values they will instil in your children would align with yours. You should also consider bequeathing some of your estate to help your appointed guardians with the inevitable costs.
Finally, ensure your will is properly witnessed. Two witnesses are required to attest that you were of sound mind and signed of your own free will in their presence. Neither of the witnesses can be a beneficiary of your will.
Conclusion – peace of mind for both you and your loved ones
Your last will and testament ensure your wishes are followed after you die. Despite being a common legal document, less than half the adult population have a valid will in place, which means their wishes may not be followed, and, worse, their death is followed by strife between their family and loved ones.
However, having a will in place avoids this, and, from the smallest memento to your most valuable assets, your estate will be passed on as you desire. Drawing one up is simple, although best done with expert advice, and is an easy way to ensure you know that what you leave will continue to take care of those that you love.