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Making a will

It’s easy to put off, or not get around to, making a will. But not doing so could cause issues for family left behind. It’s estimated that around half of UK adults don’t have a will. Here’s why you should.

It’s easy to put off, or not get around to, making a will. But not doing so could cause issues for family left behind. It’s estimated that around half of UK adults don’t have a will. Here’s why you should.

Written by
Tim Knighton
Life, health and income protection insurance expert
Last Updated
11 JANUARY 2024
9 min read
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What is a will?

A will is a legally binding document that sets out your wishes on how to distribute your estate – the money, property and possessions you leave behind. It can also set out your wishes for the ongoing care of any children who are minors.

Your will also includes the names of the people – the executors – who will manage your estate until it’s distributed to the people named in your will – your beneficiaries.

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 happens if you don’t make a will?

Without a will, you’ll ‘die intestate’ and the state gets to decide who’ll inherit your possessions.

Only married or civil partners, along with some other close relatives, can inherit under the rules of intestacy.

This could lead to considerable difficulties for the people you leave behind. For example, if you’re in a relationship, but not married or in a civil partnership, your partner won’t have an automatic right to inherit your estate.

If you have a small business and you die without naming executors in your will, nobody will be able to authorise payments (or wages), putting your business at risk.

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 on one – and while they often prefer immediate family, this isn’t automatic.

And if you have stepchildren, keep in mind that they won’t 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.

How to make a will 

There are several stages to making a will. The more assets (and types of assets) that you have, the more complicated it can be.

Here are the basic steps to making your will: 

1. Understand your estate

Before you begin writing a 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.

2. 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.

3. Consider legal advice

If you have a complicated financial situation – for example, you have a business, multiple properties or investments overseas – you may want to take advice on will writing 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. 

4. Assign an executor

This is a very important choice, as this person will be responsible for carrying out your wishes after you die. The executor will have to oversee the process of passing on assets to each beneficiary. They will also have to 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. 

5. 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.

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 make a new will or make changes to a 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 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 to a will 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.

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, life insurance providers 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, if there are previous marriages and stepchildren.

Who can be an executor?

The person or people responsible for carrying out your wishes and for sorting out your estate could be:

  • A solicitor
  • An accountant
  • A relative or close friend
  • Your bank.

It can be a big job, which involves collecting all the necessary paperwork and paying off debts and other costs.

How many executors do I need for a will?

Most people choose at least two executors, but you can have up to four.

Find out more about choosing an executor for a will.

Where should a will be stored? 

It’s crucial that your will is stored in a safe and secure place. This could be 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.
  • A bank – your bank may store your will for a small charge.
  • A will storage company – looks after your will in much the same way as a solicitor. Most work on a yearly subscription basis.
  • A 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. 

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, although costs like tax, debts, gifts and other expenses will be deducted first.

It’s important that you’re as specific as possible when making a will. Include the charity’s registration number and the exact amount you’d like to donate. 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 on your estate reduces 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 from £150 upwards for the service.

Many banks offer will-writing services for a small charge – some for free. Online will-writing services can start from as little as £20 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 go to support the work of nine well-known charities, including Age UK, Save the Children and the NSPCC.

Can I write my 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.

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. 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 and personal possessions. 

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 through a solicitor.

How much does it cost to contest a will?

There’s no simple answer to this. Costs will depend on whether the issue can be resolved at an early stage or through mediation, or whether it goes to court. If court proceedings are involved, you’ll be looking at thousands of pounds.

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 hadn’t left a will.

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