Making a will

It’s very easy to put off, or not get around to, making a will. But not doing so could cause issues for family left behind. More than half of UK adults might not have a will, but here’s why you should.

It’s very easy to put off, or not get around to, making a will. But not doing so could cause issues for family left behind. More than half of UK adults might not have a will, but here’s why you should.

Kara Gammell
Finances expert
10
minute read
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Last Updated 18 MAY 2022

What is a will?

A will is a legally binding document that sets out your wishes on how to distribute your assets – the money and property you leave behind – as well as the ongoing care of any children who are minors. Your will also includes the name of the people – the executors – who will manage your estate. Your estate is your property, money and possessions, until they’re distributed to the people named in your will – your beneficiaries.

How to make a will 

There are several stages to making a will. The more assets that you have (and types of assets), the more complicated it can be. Previous marriages, children from multiple marriages and stepchildren can also make it more complex. 

Here are the basic steps to making your will: 

Understand your estate 

Before you begin writing your will, you should fully understand your assets and your debts. 

  • Your assets – property, savings, shares and investments, pensions, life insurance policies and other belongings.
  • Your debts – mortgages, loans and credit card debts. 

Decide who your beneficiaries will be 

It may be as simple as leaving everything to a spouse or partner. But if you have children or other close relationships, you might want to spread your estate among them.

Consider legal advice 

If you have a complicated financial situation, for example, you own a business, multiple properties or investments overseas, you may want to take advice from a solicitor. 

Solicitors can also help clear up any issues around beneficiaries. For example, if you’ve been married more than once or have children from separate relationships, you can make sure that each inherits exactly what you’d like them to receive. 

Assign an executor 

This is a very important choice, as this person will be responsible for carrying out your wishes after you die. It can be a complicated role, as the executor will have to oversee the process of passing on assets to each beneficiary, as well as pay off outstanding debts and arrange any tax payments. If you’ve already sought legal/professional help in writing your will, many solicitors will also act as an executor. 

Have your will formally witnessed and signed 

Your will isn’t legally binding until you have it formally witnessed and signed by two individuals over the age of 18. If you don’t do this, your will is invalid, meaning your wishes may not be carried out.

Do I need a will? 

If you want to decide who your wealth and possessions go to when you die, you’ll need to make a will. What’s more, if you’re in a relationship, but not married, the law doesn’t recognise what many of us consider “common law marriage” – so you could wind up with nothing if your partner died. If you’re married and then divorce, you might want to edit your will to have a say on what happens to your assets if a former partner remarries.

Also, if you have a small business and you die without naming executors in your will, nobody else can authorise payments (or wages) so your business could collapse and your staff could go unpaid.

But it’s not all about money. A will is also essential for parents with children or stepchildren under 18 as it’s required to name legal guardians. If you don’t choose a guardian, local authorities will be charged with deciding – and while they often prefer immediate family, this is not automatic.

Bear in mind that choosing a godparent is not the same as nominating a guardian, as godparents have no legal rights. If you want the godparents to look after your children when you die, you have to state this in your will. And if you have stepchildren, keep in mind that they will not automatically inherit from your estate unless you specifically say so in your will – so if that’s what you’d like, get it in writing.

What happens if you don’t have a will? 

It may seem obvious, but anyone with assets such as a house, savings or even a workplace life insurance scheme should have a will. Without one, you’ll “die intestate” and the state gets to decide who’ll inherit your hard-earned possessions.

Only married or civil partners, along with some other close relatives, can inherit under the rules of intestacy. Of course, this may not be how you want your estate to be divided – which is why it’s so important to make a will.

When should you write a will? 

When you write your will is entirely up to you, although arguably, the sooner you do it, the sooner you’re in greater control of your assets. You can always make a new will, so don’t feel as though you only have one chance to get it right. Your financial situation will change throughout your life, so it makes sense for your will to change with you. 

Some of the best times to consider writing a will would be once you’ve acquired substantial assets, like a house, become a parent/responsible for dependants or want to leave assets to your partner. 

When you’re young, you may think that writing a will is unnecessary, but it’s strongly recommended. Otherwise, you’ll have no control over your assets when you die.

Do you need a solicitor to make a will? 

You don’t have to use a solicitor to make a will. There are lots of will-writing services online and some banks and charities also offer this service. However, it might be advisable to use a specialist solicitor if you have a complex family situation; for example, previous marriages and stepchildren.

Who can be an executor? 

You’ll need to decide who will act as the executor – the person or people responsible for carrying out your wishes and for sorting out your estate. It can be a big job, which involves collecting all of the necessary paperwork and paying off debts and other costs. 

Most people choose at least two executors. Common examples are: 

  • a solicitor
  • an accountant
  • a relative or close friend
  • your bank 

Find out more about choosing an executor for a will.

How do you make a will legally binding? 

For a will to be valid, it must typically be: 

  • made by someone who is at least 18 years old
  • done without any pressure from any other person
  • made by someone of sound mind who is fully aware of what they’re doing
  • signed in writing and witnessed by two other people who also sign.  

If any of these stages aren’t complete, then your will may be considered invalid. As soon as the will is signed and witnessed, it’s considered a legal document and is complete. Some life insurance policies offer a free will-writing service.

Where should a will be stored? 

It’s crucial that your will is stored in a safe and secure place. For example, with a: 

  • solicitor – if you choose to use a solicitor to help you write your will, it’s common for them to keep a copy on file for you as part of the service.
  • bank – your bank may store your will for a small charge.
  • will storage company – looks after your will in much the same way as a solicitor. Most work on a yearly subscription basis.
  • registry – you can register your will for safe keeping at the Principal Registry of the Family Division of the High Court, a District Registry or Probate Sub-Registry. 

However, it’s also important for you to keep your own copy safe. If the solicitor or company that holds your will goes out of business, your will may be lost. You can keep a copy at home, as long as your designated executor knows exactly where it is and it’s in a place where it won’t be damaged or lost.

Top tip
Don’t store your will in a safety deposit box. Your executor won’t be able to access the box because they don’t have probate, and they won’t be able to apply for probate because the will is in the safety deposit box.

How to leave money to a charity in your will 

There are several ways you can make a donation to charity in your will. These include: 

  • a cash donation - simply state in your will the amount you’d like to leave and to which charity.
  • a donation of other specified assets - this could include property, vehicles or other valuables, like jewellery.
  • remainder of your estate - if you feel like leaving everything to a good cause, you could simply leave your whole estate to charity. Costs including tax, debts, gifts and other expenses will be deducted first. 

It’s important that you’re as specific as possible when writing your will. Include the charity’s registration number and the exact amount you’d like to donate, to avoid any potential disputes. If you decide to leave a legacy with a charity, many of them will even help you write your will for free. 

There are also tax benefits to leaving a charitable donation. If you leave a minimum of 10% of your estate to charity, the amount of inheritance tax your estate is subjected to is reduced from 40% to 36%. Any donations are also exempt from your estate, so won’t fall under the inheritance tax threshold of £325,000.

How much does it cost to make a will? 

Using a solicitor is the most expensive option. The exact cost will depend on how complex your situation is, but you can expect to pay a few hundred pounds for the service. 

Many banks offer will-writing services for a small charge – some for free – while online will-writing services usually start from around £80 for a straightforward will. 

Did you know?
Every November, the charity Will Aid partners with selected solicitors to offer a basic will-writing service free of charge in exchange for a small donation. Donations then go to support the work of nine well-known charities, including Age UK, Save the Children and the NSPCC.

Can you write your own will? 

As long as it’s properly witnessed, a DIY will is legally binding and can save you a lot of money. However, it’s still a good idea to have a professional look it over, especially if you have a more complex situation.

When to update your will 

It’s important to update your will if there’s a change in your circumstances – for example, after getting married, divorced or after the birth or adoption of a child. 

You can’t amend your original will. You can only make changes by: 

  • Adding a codicil – a supplement that adds any changes while keeping the original will intact. The codicil needs to be signed and witnessed in the same way as the original will.
  • Making a new will, which revokes all previous wills and codicils – revoking means that the previous will is no longer legally valid.

Frequently asked questions

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process of sorting out someone’s financial affairs when they die. If you have a will, the executor will need to apply for probate – the legal right to deal with your property, money and possessions when you die. If you don’t have a will, your closest living relative can apply. 

You might not need probate if: 

  • Your property, money and possessions are jointly owned – these will automatically be passed on to the surviving owner or owners
  • You only had savings 

Before someone can apply for probate, they’ll need to estimate the value of the deceased’s estate to find out if any inheritance tax needs to be paid.

Can you challenge a will?

You can challenge a will if: 

  • you believe the will is invalid
  • you believe you haven’t been fairly provided for in the will. 

You have up to six months after probate has been granted to put in a challenge, which you’ll need to do via a solicitor.

How do you destroy a will?

If you want to make a new will, the original one must be destroyed. You can burn it or tear it up – but you must do it yourself or have someone do it in your presence. It’s advisable to add a clause to the new will, revoking previous wills and codicils, in case there are other copies. By revoking a previous will, it will no longer be legally valid.

What if I can’t find someone’s will?

If someone close to you has recently died and you’re sure they have a will, but you can’t find it, you can: 

  • check if they deposited the will for safe keeping with the Principal Registry of the Family Division.
  • check if their solicitor or bank has a copy.
  • check if they registered their will on a commercial database like Certainty, The National Will Register. 

If the will can’t be found, the deceased’s estate will usually be treated under the rules of intestacy in the same way it would if they didn’t leave a will.

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