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Write your will right

Updated 03 December 2020

3min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

Once you’ve departed to the great hereafter there really is no going back – just ask Houdini – so any mistakes you make in your will are going to haunt your family, even if you don’t. Here’s our quick guide to a top-notch testament.

Will shadows

As the world’s greatest escapologist, Harry Houdini believed he could escape even death. In his will he asked that a séance be conducted every year on the anniversary of his death, so he could contact his wife Bess. Needless to say, he never did – which should be enough to convince most people that you don’t get to come back and correct your mistakes.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is dying without a will. It won’t bother you, of course, just as it didn’t bother billionaire Howard Hughes, who left behind fifteen years of legal wrangling over who should inherit his fortune.

So yes, do make a will. And make sure you do it properly – because it might be your last chance.

  1. Don’t do it ‘on the cheap’

This is about everything you own and everyone you love. A DIY kit? Really? It’s frighteningly easy to make mistakes when you do it yourself – mistakes which may not come to light until it’s too late. Besides, it’s often not a cheap option. Solicitors make a lot of money from sorting out claims and poorly-written wills, when the fee for just writing one is usually very reasonable – between £100 and £200 to get a watertight professional job.

  1. Choose your executors carefully

Your executor is a 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 official matters. You can appoint a professional executor (e.g. a solicitor) but of course this will come at a cost.

  1. Avoid conflicts of interest

If you need help in drafting your will, don’t ask help from anyone named as a beneficiary (such as your own children). This could result in the will being challenged by other parties.

  1. Find suitable impartial witnesses

Similarly, you will need witnesses to read and sign your will (at least two people) and these should not be beneficiaries, for the reason given above.

  1. If it’s not simple, ask

Your solicitor is there to do more than just check your wording. Modern families are often complicated, involving issues such as step-children and children from previous marriages and so forth. A will can quickly become very complex, which makes errors and ambiguities more likely – ask your solicitor if you’re unsure of anything. Owning property abroad can also create unforeseen issues.

  1. Think about inheritance tax (IHT)

If you think your beneficiaries may have to pay IHT on your estate (very likely if you own more than one property) 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 advance planning.

  1. Appoint separate guardians and trustees

If your children are still under 18, you should specify in your will who should look after them in the event of your premature death. You should also appoint trustees to manage any money that they may inherit before they reach adulthood. Trustees should not also be made legal guardians, as this creates a conflict of interest.

  1. Consider as many eventualities as you can

What if one or all of your beneficiaries should die before you? What if they should die before you but have children of their own? What if your child were to divorce their partner while your grandchildren remain with the partner? It’s possible to leave a legacy of family turmoil if your will is too vague, or even too specific, if you haven’t considered all possibilities. Again, talk each point over with your solicitor.

  1. Review your will regularly

Even if you think your circumstances are the same, it pays to look over the document every few years. You never know what new thoughts might occur to you, or what unseen flaws you might spot.

  1. Keep it safe but accessible

You don’t want your will to get lost, but neither do you want it to be impossible to find. Remember, it won’t be you who ultimately has to dig it out – so tell your family where it is!

Talk to a financial adviser about organising your estate, and find a solicitor to help you write a watertight will. Our inheritance tax checklist can help too.

About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.