How to Write a Will

A will explains how you want loved ones to inherit your money, property and belongings when you die. It doesn’t have to be expensive or lengthy to be legally binding – in fact, it’s possible to make a will yourself, provided it has been correctly witnessed and your affairs are not complex.

Laura Whateley, Holly Bennett Last updated on 06 October 2021.
How to Write a Will

What would you like to happen to your money, your possessions and your home after you die? And if you have children who are under the age of 18, how would you like them to be cared for or financially supported?

To ensure your wishes are met after your death, it is no good just telling those closest to you who gets what. You need to write a will, which is a legally witnessed and binding document.

If you are not sure how to go about this, the steps below should help.

Write a simple will

A will can be a simple document on a piece of paper that you put together yourself. However, it must be properly signed and witnessed or you risk it being invalid in the eyes of the law. It may help to buy a DIY will kit online or in a stationery shop. Just be aware that DIY wills come with risks. A badly written will could not only be invalid but it could cost your beneficiaries money in legal costs and make probate – the legal process for dealing with your estate – more drawn out than it needs to be.

Use a professional will writer or solicitor

If you want guidance but don’t want to pay for a solicitor, you could use a will writing service. The more complex your needs, the higher the cost is likely to be.

Unlike solicitors, will writers are not regulated so look for one who 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 who 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. This may look like a sensible option but, again, check whether you can choose your own executor or whether the terms of the will stipulate that you use one from their will writing company, which will charge extra fees on top.

If your estate is in any way complex – for example, if it will be liable for inheritance tax (IHT) 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. It could also 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.

» MORE: How to create an estate plan

Pay less for a solicitor to write your will

Every November is Will Aid month, where solicitors will draw up a basic will, forgoing their usual fee. Instead, you are invited to donate to Will Aid, which will be split between nine charities, including the 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 and October called Free Wills Month, for those aged over 55, when you can draw up or review and update your existing will with participating solicitors. You are encouraged to give a gift to one or more nominated charities, including Mind, RNLI and The Salvation Army in your will, but you don’t have to.

Choose your 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, completing the paperwork and paying any money out of the estate for administration or funeral costs. An executor can also be a beneficiary in your will.

You can choose a friend or family member to be executor. It is a big responsibility, so you may want to explain your plan to them and make sure they are clear about what it involves, and that they agree to it. Otherwise, you could appoint a solicitor, accountant or other professional executor to do the job, with their fee paid out of your estate.

Get your will witnessed

You need two witnesses over the age of 18 to sign your will in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – in Scotland, you need one witness aged 16-plus to sign your will. Your witness must be in the same room as you when they sign it or, until at least January 2022 in England and Wales, you can have a will witnessed remotely, by video call. This is provided you can clearly see the witness signing. This amendment to the law was made to help people self-isolating during the pandemic. You cannot use digital signatures, though.

Witnesses must be independent and not standing to inherit anything from your estate, though they could also be your will’s executors.

Include your digital assets

As we increasingly build rich online lives and store meaningful possessions online, including music, photographs, videos and social media profiles, it is also important to consider how you would like these to be dealt with, passed on, stored, or deleted when you die.

Detail clearly what online accounts or possessions you have and how to access them, and your username. You may be able to nominate a contact for your social media profiles, who can close the account or memorialise it when you die.

You can leave requests in your will, though be aware that wills are public documents so they are not the best place to detail account passwords, which will likely change over time anyway. If you hold cryptocurrencies you will need to make a note of your private key or password.

You could use a password vault such as LastPass 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. You can also find help with digital assets planning on the Digital Legacy Association website.

Consider a will trust to protect assets for loved ones

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. This can be included in your will.

This could be suitable if you want someone to look after your children’s inheritance until they are adults if you die when they are young.

Write 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 to give your executors extra information and ensure 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. Or 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. It’s important to make sure that nothing in your letters of wishes contradicts what is written in your will.

You need to sign and date your letter of wishes, but it does not need to be witnessed like a will. You can also update it whenever you need to.

» MORE: Are funeral plans worth it?

Keep your will up to date

Once you have written a will, make sure you keep it up to date and alter it if necessary after big life events. This could be if:

  • You divorce or separate from your partner.
  • A beneficiary or executor of your will passes away.
  • You get married, re-married or enter into a civil partnership.
  • You have a first child or more children.
  • You have bought a home or have increased your wealth and assets.

It is especially important to set out who you would like to care for children if you pass away while they are under 18.

Even in the absence of major life changes, try to review your will at least every five years.

Small changes may be possible without a complete rewrite, by creating a codicil to your will. This must be signed and witnessed and kept with your will, and will usually work out cheaper than making a completely new will.

But if you need to make significant changes to your will, you should write a new one. Make sure you destroy old wills or codicils that have been replaced, and write in the new documents that you revoke previous versions.

Putting it off? Here’s what happens if you don’t make a will

Without a will, the rules of intestacy apply. This means that your full estate, which is everything you leave behind, will be divided among your family according to certain rules, regardless of your wishes. This means that if you have no will:

  • If you are married or in a civil partnership, your spouse or civil partner will be first in line for inheritance, followed by your children, which includes legally adopted children. But stepchildren or foster children who are not legally adopted are not included.
  • If you are not married or in a civil partnership and have 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, and it will be added to the bona vacantia list of unclaimed estates.
  • If you are cohabiting partners, even if you have lived together for decades or have children together, neither partner has an automatic right to inherit their partner’s estate, unless it is detailed in a will. So a will is particularly important for people in a long-term relationship who are not spouses or civil partners.
  • Without an appointed guardian for your children, if you pass away before they are 18, the courts will decide who will take care of them. This will be based on its assessment of what is best for them, not your direction.

You may also have friends, grandchildren, or more distant relatives that you would want to benefit from your estate, or a charity you would like to support. The rules of intestacy won’t take that into account.

While you are making a will, you may also want to consider IHT and the implications for your family, if your estate is large enough. There is usually no immediate IHT to pay if your spouse or civil partner inherits your estate in full. There may also be no IHT payable if you leave everything above the £325,000 threshold to a charity or community amateur sports club.

» MORE: A guide to inheritance tax

Image source: Getty Images

About the authors:

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

Holly champions clear, jargon-free writing. She’s been creating finance content for leading organisations for over 10 years. Read more

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