Why do I need a will?
A will is the only legally valid way to express your wishes as to how you would like your possessions and assets to be distributed after you pass away. There are some misconceptions about wills that may mean you are under the impression you don’t need one.
- “I don’t have much money or a property to leave” – this may be true. However, most people have some possessions that mean something to them, and a will is the only way to direct these to a particular person. For example, you may have photos, jewellery or toys that you would like to go to a particular person.
- “Everything will pass to my husband/wife/civil partner anyway” – this is not true. Assets that are jointly owned (such as a joint bank account) will go to them. Things that belong just to you will be split in a certain way if you don’t have a will, according to the laws of intestacy. This means that your other half will get the first £250,000, plus half the rest, with the other half going to your children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren as applicable.
- “I’ve lived with my partner for long enough that they will get a share automatically” – this is a really important one. There is no such thing as a “common law marriage” under UK law at the time of writing. The laws of intestacy (those which cover the scenario of someone dying without a will) state that only relatives and spouses or civil partners can inherit automatically. If you wish your partner to inherit anything that you own, you must create a will or marry to give them automatic rights (although, see above to see why you may still need a will when married). They may be able to claim a share after your death, but this will require a lengthy and costly court process, and the court will decide what they are entitled to.
NOTE: If you jointly own a house, but you are not married, what your partner inherits and whether they pay tax depends on how much of the house you each own (i.e. whether you are “tenants in common” or “joint tenants”). You may wish to seek further advice if this applies.
- “Creating a will is expensive” – it doesn’t have to be. It is important to get advice if you have a large estate or have wishes that may be complicated to deliver. The most important thing is to create a will that is clear and legally valid, which you can get help to do at a relatively low cost (see later in this toolkit).
- “I have made a Power of Attorney, so I do not need a will” – a Lasting Power of Attorney is a system set in place to allow others to deal with your affairs if you are alive but unable to make your own decisions. Importantly, this responsibility does not continue after you die, so you need to create a will and appoint your attorneys as executors if you want them to continue to deal with things in the event of your death.
What is a will?
A will is legal document that lists who you wish to have your assets in the event of your death. The people who receive gifts from your will are known as beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are usually family and friends but can also be organisations such as charities. You can also use a will to set out who should take over your responsibilities, such as caring for your children, or set out what you would like to happen at your funeral.
It also lists the people who you want to make sure your wishes are carried out according to the will. These people are called executors of the will; they can be family and friends but may also be solicitors or other professionals. Being an executor can be a time-consuming process, so it is a good idea to warn and prepare those you have nominated.
What needs to be included in a will?
Essentially, anything and everything you own. It is important to take the time to fully list everything and estimate its worth properly. Estimating worth is particularly important if you wish to leave a lump sum (e.g. £1000) rather than a percentage, as a lump sum can only be given to the person.
What makes a will legally binding?
To be legally binding, a will must:
- Be made by someone aged 18 or over
- Made voluntarily, with no influence from another person
- Made by a person of sound mind
- Be made in writing
- Signed in the presence of two witnesses, who then also sign it to say they witnessed the original signature.
It is not absolutely necessary to include a date, but it is advisable to date the will on the day it is signed.
The witnesses cannot be beneficiaries of the will (i.e. they cannot be listed as inheriting your possessions). If they sign as a witness but are also listed as a beneficiary, they will not be given anything they inherit from you. Therefore, many people choose to use a solicitor as a witness.
After this, a will cannot just be altered ad-hoc. To make a change, you must destroy the will and make a new one, or create a document called a codicil outlining the changes, which must also be signed and witnessed like the original document to be valid. If you do not make the changes in an appropriate way, the original will is still deemed to be valid and changes will be ignored.
How do I make a will?
Technically, you could write a will yourself, following the steps to make it legally binding. However, many people choose to get advice in one form or another to make a will. However, it can be easy to make mistakes
Here are some options, with the potential benefits and pitfalls of each. It may be best to look at all options, to see what would work best for you.
- With your trade union – Some trade unions offer free or heavily discounted will writing services for their members; this will usually be with a solicitor firm that the union uses or has an agreement with. Your employer might offer a similar service, but if it’s just a template to fill in with no extra advice included, it might be beneficial to go elsewhere.
- Included with insurance policies – It might be worth checking your home or car insurance documents. If you have legal cover included, check to see if this includes will writing services. This may only extend to a template being provided and then the form being checked over by the legal team but may be sufficient for a simple will. This could be a cost-effective way of creating the document for those with just a few assets to protect.
- Free Wills Month – Every March and October, a collection of charities sponsor Free Wills Month, which means they cover the cost of a solicitor’s time to draw up a simple will, or mirror wills for a couple. You must be over 55 to use this scheme. You apply by searching for solicitors that have joined the scheme and book an appointment direct. The appointment will be free (unless you have complex financial affairs, when the solicitor will let you know if extra charges apply). You are asked to leave a voluntary donation to a participating charity in your will as a thank you. The number of appointments are limited and allocated first come, first served. https://freewillsmonth.org.uk/
- Will Aid – This is a similar scheme to Free Wills Month but is open to people of any age. You are also expected to make the donation to the charities before or at the appointment, rather than upon death, with a suggested donation of £95 for single will or £150 for mirror wills for a couple. You use the Will Aid website to find one of the 900 participating solicitors near you and then book an appointment direct. As above, it is designed for simple or mirror wills only and you need to contact them from September to ensure you get an appointment. There is an additional benefit of the will being registered on the Certainty National Wills Register, which will help your family find the will after death. https://www.willaid.org.uk/
- Will Relief Scotland – This is another charity scheme, open in September for all Scottish residents. It works as the above two schemes, in that you find a solicitor through the Will Relief site, arrange the appointment and make the suggestion donation at the solicitor’s office. The suggested amounts here are £80 for a single will, £120 for joint mirror wills and £40 to update an existing will. https://willreliefscotland.org/
- Individual charities – Certain charities also run their own schemes. Below are the basic details:
- Cancer Research – Open year-round to over-55s. It is hoped you will leave them a gift. Can be done online, by phone or at a solicitor. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/get-involved/donate/leave-a-legacy-gift-in-your-will/free-will-service
- The Stroke Association – Open year-round for over-60s or stroke survivors over 18. It is hoped that you will leave them a gift. https://www.stroke.org.uk/webform/order-free-will-pack
- The Children’s Hospital Charity – This is not a free will, but a discount scheme through Irwin Mitchell. You need to contact Irwin Mitchell direct (calling 0330 1230882 or emailing email@example.com quoting TCHC). As well as the fee being discounted, 20% of the fee you pay goes to the charity. There are no restrictions on age or location for this scheme.
- The National Free Wills Network – A number of charities sign up to this scheme, as it is mutually beneficial to the charity as a fundraising tool, as people are likely to leave them a legacy. If there is a charity that is close to your heart, it is worth checking if they are a part of this scheme. Charities signed up include Shelter, Oxfam, Amnesty International and Alzheimer’s Research UK.
- Low cost professional wills – There are several legal companies and consumer groups offering wills that are cheaper than the full solicitor service. Again, these are best for simple wills and mirror wills for couples, and they are often sorted online or by phone.
- Farewill offers a template, which is then checked by a legal professional and returned to you to store where you like. They offer free updates within a year and a subscription service of £10 for a year for future unlimited updates. This is also open to anyone. https://farewill.com/?utm_source=moneysavingexpert&utm_medium=website&utm_campaign=msesave40&utm_channel=affiliate
- Co-op legal services is a bit more hands-on, as you start writing online, but you get a follow-up call and some editing done for you, plus free storage of the will. Open to anyone. https://www.co-oplegalservices.co.uk/partners/wills/?utm_campaign=mse&utm_term=mse&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=mse
- Which? is a consumer rights group that also have a legal service. This option might be good for those who need slightly more complex arrangements, as they have three levels of fees, although they say the service is unsuitable for those who want to leave a business in a will. It is a template service which is then checked for you. https://willsoffers.which.co.uk/wml5
- There are also online only solicitors that can offer good value, but it is advisable to check the terms and conditions, so you are absolutely clear what’s included. You might also like to check they are registered with a regulatory body, so they adhere to certain standards. One example is the Institute of Professional Will Writers.
- Traditional solicitors – This is almost certainly the most expensive option. However, it may also be best option if you want a face to face service or you have complex needs and financial affairs. You can find a solicitor by checking online reviews or go via the Law Society website: http://solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk/.
- DIY – You can research the legal requirements and write a will document yourself. It is important to remember that is not legal unless it meets the requirements set out above. If you have a will professionally made, there is insurance or codes of practice that mean you are protected should a mistake have been made; you do not get this if you make it yourself.
If you choose to do it yourself, you may still find a template useful. You can buy packs in newsagents, such as W H Smith, or you can use an online template (http://www.qwill.co.uk/ and https://www.yourwillbedone.co.uk/ are two examples). Some of the online companies also offer checking for an extra fee, be sure to check what is and is not included.
I have made a will, what do I do with it?
The most important thing to remember about a will is that is useless unless it can be found in the event of your death. It is recommended that you either keep a copy or details of where you are keeping the will in a place where your family will find it. It is also important to tell them you have written one, even if you do not want to tell them the details, so they can start to look for it as soon as possible. Storage may be included in the package when you create the will too.
Some places you can store your will include (a fee may apply for storage and/or withdrawal at external places):
- At home (remember that it could get damaged here, so it could be advisable to back it up elsewhere)
- At your solicitors or accountants
- At the bank
- With the Probate Service (England and Wales) or The Probate Office (NI)
It is also a good idea to register that you have made a will with Certainty, which is a commercial company that carries a register of everyone that has made a will. They don’t store the will itself, but they mark who has made a will and where they keep it. Certainty are endorsed by the Law Society. https://www.nationalwillregister.co.uk/Default.aspx
When should I update a will or make a new one?
Whenever your circumstances change, it is advisable to update your will. This can be done for a small fee at a solicitor, or with companies like the ones listed previously.
The most important time to update your will is if you get married. If you have a will before you are married, it is invalidated by the marriage. If you die without creating a new will, you will be deemed as having died without a will at all.
You may also like to update your will if you get divorced or have children, or acquire lots of new assets (such as purchasing a house for the first time).
If you are destroying a previous will and writing a whole new will, make sure that you destroy the old one, preferably in the presence of a witness, and it is advisable to write in the new will that all previous wills or amendments are invalid.
- https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/death-and-wills/wills/#h-where-to-keep-a-will – A good overview of wills and probate in the UK.
- https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/family/free-cheap-wills/#cheap – A good guide to making a will on a budget, with the occasional deal or voucher for particular companies.
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