Updated 03 December 2020
When is the best time to make your will? The answer is, as soon as you can. Having an up-to-date will is important at any time of life, but especially if you have people who depend on you – such as a partner or children.
Here’s why you need a will and how to go about writing one.
If you die without a will (known as ‘dying intestate’) then UK law determines who inherits your assets. This may not be as you would have wished – and it will certainly take much longer for your beneficiaries to inherit.
With a will, you can dictate exactly who gets what. Your wishes can be as simple or as detailed as you like, provided that your solicitor ensures they are legally binding. You can ensure your family members are taken care of, leave assets or specific items to wider family and friends, make contributions to charity and ensure your overall legacy. Most importantly, you can specify who will care for any dependent children you leave behind.
Your will may well need to change with your circumstances. If you get married, this invalidates any previous will you may have made, so you will need to make a new one. Similarly, if you have more children, you may need to write them into a new will to prevent future disputes.
If you have children from previous marriages or relationships, an up-to-date will is essential if you want to avoid messy conflicts between your different families.
Although DIY will-writing kits are available, it’s easy to make mistakes this way, which can be very costly to fix later on. A solicitor can help you make a watertight will for between £100 and £200.
You will need to appoint executors too. This is the person who oversees the distribution of your estate, and who will liaise with any professionals or organisations on behalf of your beneficiaries. You should appoint at least two people to do this. They don’t need any experience, but do choose people who are confident dealing with official matters.
You will also need at least two witnesses to read and sign your will, and these should not be beneficiaries.
Sometimes your will can help to reduce the inheritance tax (IHT) your beneficiaries may have to pay. If you think your estate may be over the IHT threshold, talk to a financial adviser before you start to draft your will. There are many ways in which you can reduce or even eliminate an IHT bill through legitimate planning in advance, and through other means such as making gifts to charities in your will.
You should keep your will safe at home, with your solicitor, at a will storage company or with your bank. Make sure the relevant people know where it is – you won’t be around to tell them!
A joint will is one made by two people (usually married) that cannot be changed without both of them agreeing. This means that after one party's death, the other person cannot change the will without taking costly legal action. Technically, joint wills no longer exist in UK law. You can however make mirror wills, where each spouse writes their own individual will that exactly matches the other's. Each spouse can also change their own will if it becomes necessary to do so. Contact a solicitor to find out more about mirror wills.
Another way to ensure your wishes are carried out is by setting up a trust. This allows you to set aside money to support a beneficiary in a very specific way or at a very specific time (e.g. to pay for your own care, to support someone who can’t manage their own money, or to pay university fees). You’ll need to name a trustee who will be responsible for ensuring the trust is used for its intended purpose.
There are different types of trusts, and each has different tax implications, so it’s important to explore your options with a financial adviser. Once you’ve decided on a trust, you’ll also need the help of a solicitor to ensure it is legally sound.