By Judith Parsons
You may think that anyone with children, a home or investment portfolio would automatically have a will, but you’d be wrong. Research from Macmillan Cancer Support 1 reveals that almost two thirds (63%) of us in the UK don’t have one, and worryingly this includes 42% of people aged over 55. The main reason, according to the study, is we ‘just never got around to it.’
Clearly, this is a subject we would rather dodge. But with increasingly complex blended families now the fastest-growing household type, according to the Office for National Statistics 2, plus fluctuating property prices, there are good reasons to get it sorted.
Donald Brierley, a self-employed electrical engineer in his sixties, admits he is a classic will evader. “The main reason is my personality. I’m an optimist and so focused on working that I don’t want to consider that I won’t live forever. However, a recent back problem has made me stop, think and face up to writing one.”
Reasons to think twice
If you need further convincing, the Government website hits home when it says: “If you die without a will, the law says who gets what”. This is because England and Wales have strict inheritance laws – referred to as the Rules of Intestacy – that don’t take into account modern families.
Unmarried couples can be affected, and if you have children under 18, make sure you appoint a legal guardian in your will to look after them. If you don’t, it could be left to the family courts to decide where they live. Your step-children may be a big part of your life, but the law states that only your spouse, blood relatives and adopted children can automatically inherit if there’s nothing officially in writing.
You may also be unaware that if you marry in England and Wales any previous will is invalidated. Unless you make a new one, your estate will be divided according to intestacy rules. This means your new spouse could inherit most of your assets, potentially leaving nothing for your children. Getting divorced doesn't override your will either if you die before the decree absolute.
Easy ways to avoid complications
Wills can be complex, especially where you have trusts and dependants who are not catered for in the will. However, to make your wishes clear, a visit to a solicitor remains the most popular way to arrange one. Make sure you, choose a solicitor with ‘TEP’ after their name (this stands for trust and estate practitioner). Costs will vary depending on the complexity.
A less expensive option is to use a will-writing service. These aren’t regulated in the same way as solicitors, so make sure they belong to a professional organisation, such as The Society of Will Writers. The cheapest but riskiest option is to purchase a do it yourself will kit, but only for the simplest scenarios and even, then it is best to seek advice as it could be invalid.
An increasing number of charities offer free will-writing services but hope for a donation. Will Aid 2019 is a partnership between the legal profession and nine popular charities. Every November participating solicitors waive their fee for writing a basic will, inviting clients to make a voluntary donation. Likewise, during Free Wills Month in October, you can get a similar service if you’re over 55. Again, if you belong to a trades union, many now offer a free will-writing service.
Choose the right executor
Most of us want to feel in control of how our estate is divided after we’ve gone. Choosing the right executors is an important part of the process, and they tend to be family or friends. As Peter Watts, solicitor and founder of GlossLegal, advises: “Choosing your executors carefully may well be one of the biggest gifts you make to your heirs.”
He says it’s often good practice to appoint more than one executor and, generally, two or three are recommended. Choose people likely to survive you, who are fit and capable of carrying out your wishes, and handling your money, property and possessions. Your estate may include digital assets, so it’s a good idea to check one of your executors is digitally literate.
For families prone to disputes, single people with no children or close friends, and potentially where there are complex arrangements, one solution is to choose professional executors, such as the family solicitor or accountant. It might cost more, but it could be worth it.
Start a ‘life file’
To make things easier for both your executors and beneficiaries, organising your paperwork is a positive start. As Melanie Frost, an office manager, says: “I would urge anyone with a blended family such as mine to take stock and create a practical backstop. It recently dawned on me that I had no idea about our policies, pensions, and bank accounts or how to release my husband’s business should anything happen to him.
“With growing technology, more bills paid online and normally in one person’s name, it makes it difficult when someone dies. As a result, we are in the process of compiling a ‘life file’. Absolutely everything we don’t know about each other’s paperwork needs to be in here and not in our heads.”
Age UK offers a helpful free LifeBook, as a booklet or digital file, for all your important information, from who insures your car to where you put the TV licence. In addition, a simple factsheet of your personal finances kept with your will is likely to be invaluable.
Update and review
To guarantee your will remains a safety net for the future, tell your executors where they can find it and remember to review it regularly. “It’s easily done, but failing to keep your will up-to-date can cause as many problems as not having one,” says Rachael Rodgers of Heir Tight Wills & Estate Planning. “An estimated 25% of wills submitted to Probate currently fail, or partly fail, due to errors or them not having been kept up-to-date.
“Review your will at least every three to five years – sooner if there have been major changes in your circumstances, or somebody appointed in your will is no longer relevant,” she advises.
Location, location, location
Likewise, if nobody knows you have a will or where it is, it could be ignored. Nigel McGinnity, CEO of Certainty, the National Will Register, cautions that 67% of people don’t know where to find the original copy of their parents’ wills.
“This is not surprising as a will tends to be written and the original stored with the solicitor or will writer, and is hopefully not needed for decades,” he says.
But not being able to locate a will can lead to the estate being distributed under the laws of intestacy. Registering yours at www.nationalwillregister.co.uk, or asking your solicitor to do it for you (normally for free), quickly solves the problem.
If peace of mind sounds appealing, and with family dynamics constantly changing, your will could be the most important document you ever write.