How to Write a Will
A will is a legal document that details the care of your family and financial wishes upon your death. Learn how to write a will, the different types of wills, when you should get professional advice and how to keep your will up to date.
When you die what do you want to happen to your money, your possessions or your home?
If you have children, how would you like them to be cared for or financially supported?
To ensure your wishes are met when you are gone, it is no good just telling those closest to you. You need to write a will, a legally witnessed and binding document. Without one, the rules of intestacy apply. This means that your full estate, which is the total of what you leave behind, will be divided among your family according to certain rules, irrespective of your own wishes.
If you are married or in a civil partnership, that means your spouse, followed by your children (but not step or foster children).
If you are unmarried with no children, your estate may pass to your parents or siblings. If you have no living relatives your estate will go to the Crown, that is, the government.
A will is particularly important for people who are not married but in a long-term relationship. Many people don’t realise that cohabiting partners, even those who have lived together for decades or have children together, have no automatic right to inherit their partner’s estate, unless it is detailed in a will.
Similarly, you may have friends, grandchildren, or more distant relatives that you’d want to benefit from your estate, or a charity you’d like to support.
If your estate is large you may also want to consider inheritance tax and the implications for your family, depending on who your estate goes to. There is no inheritance tax to pay if your spouse inherits your estate in full.
How to write a will
Wills can be a very simple document on any piece of paper that you can put together yourself, but they must be properly signed and witnessed otherwise they are deemed invalid. To help, you can purchase DIY will kits from stationery shops.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland two witnesses over the age of 18 are required to sign your will, and must be in the same room with you when you sign it, too.
Witnesses must be independent, i.e. not standing to inherit anything from your estate, though they could be your will’s executors.
You need to choose one or several executors, up to a maximum of four.
Executors will oversee and carry out the distribution of your estate, paying any tax due, settling any debts, doing all the paperwork and paying any money out of the estate for administration or funeral costs.
You can choose a friend or family member to be executor, or you could pay a solicitor or professional to do it for you if you prefer.
Should I get professional help?
If you want guidance but don’t want to pay for a solicitor you could use a will writing service. Fees start at around £80 but could be higher the more complex your needs are.
Unlike solicitors, will writers are not regulated so look for one that is part of an industry body, for example, the Institute of Professional Willwriters. This will help you seek redress if you are not happy with the service you receive.
Be wary of any will writers that appoint themselves or encourage you to appoint them as executors as part of the deal, which can work out as unnecessarily expensive.
Banks may also offer low-cost will writing services, often for £100 or less. This may look like a sensible option, but again you need to check whether you can choose your own executor or whether its terms stipulate that you use one from their will writing company who will charge extra fees on top.
If your estate is in anyway complex, for example, if it will be liable for inheritance tax or you have children or stepchildren from previous relationships, it makes sense to write a will with a solicitor.
You will pay more for this, usually a few hundred pounds, but it could offer valuable peace of mind and save your family money in the long run because any mistake, or anything that is not clear on your will, risks it being deemed invalid.
Keep your will up to date
You should keep your will up to date, and alter it if necessary after big life events for example, when you get married or enter a civil partnership, when you have children (it is especially important to include in your will who you’d like to care for children if you die while they are under 18) and if you get divorced or separate.
Free wills month and Will Aid
Every November is Will Aid month, where solicitors will draw up a basic will, forgoing their usual fee to do so. Instead, you are invited to donate to Will Aid, which will be split between nine charities including NSPCC, ActionAid, Age UK and British Red Cross.
The suggested donation is £100 for a basic single will, or £180 for a pair of basic mirror wills, where you and a partner draw up wills together.
There is a similar programme in March called Free Wills Month, for those aged over 55. You can draw up or review and update your existing will with participating solicitors during Free Wills Month. You are encouraged to give a gift to one or more of the participating charities, including Mind, RNLI and Salvation Army in your will, but there is no obligation.
What are digital wills?
As we increasingly build rich online lives, and store meaningful possessions online, from music to photographs and videos and messages on social media, it is also important to consider how you’d like these to be dealt with, passed on, stored, or deleted when you die.
Detail what online accounts or possessions you have and how to access them.
You can leave requests in your will, though be aware that wills are public documents so not the best place to detail account passwords.
You could use a password vault such as Last Pass and give the master password to a trusted friend or relative, or discuss with a solicitor the best way to pass on access to your digital assets.
What is a testamentary trust?
A will trust, also known as a testamentary trust, is a legal structure used to protect property or assets for a beneficiary with someone else – a trustee – managing it on their behalf. They can be included within your will.
This could be suitable if you die while your children are young and you want someone to look after the money for them to inherit when they are older.
» MORE: About beneficiaries
Writing a letter of wishes
Alongside your will you may also want to write a letter of wishes. Unlike your will, a letter of wishes is not legally binding, but it can be a helpful way of giving your executors extra information and ensuring everything is handled as you would wish.
You may, for example, include information about what you would like to happen at your funeral, or if children are involved, how you would like them to be raised or educated. Alternatively, if you have included something controversial in your will, such as excluding a member of your family, you could use a letter of wishes to explain your decision.
You need to sign and date your letter of wishes, but it does not need to be witnessed like a will.
» MORE: Power of Attorney
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Laura is a journalist and author, writing about money since 2008. Including writing for The Times for 9 years. She believes finance doesn't need to be complicated. Author of Money: a user's guide. Read more