Planning for your own death is no-one's idea of a good time. But if you don't look ahead and do it, you can leave family and friends facing difficult decisions and legal issues after you've gone.
Putting things in place for the end of your life – whether that’s a sudden passing or gradual decline – can be sobering, but it doesn’t have to be daunting. We’ll cover the steps you need to take, so you can put a plan together.
Keep a record of your finances
One of the most important things you can do, is to have a full record of all your assets – from property, bank accounts, and investments to any pensions. Plus, a list of any valuable items you have like jewellery and what they’re worth. After you’re gone, your relatives may struggle to find the details of your accounts, especially if they’re online with no clues like account books. Keep a record of the banks, building societies or investment providers you’re with, along with the account numbers. Also include any policy information for life insurance and pensions. Store them all in a secure place with other documents like your will.
You’ll also need to record any debts you might have, like the amount outstanding on your mortgage, loans or any credit cards with balances. Unfortunately, your debt doesn’t vanish when you die. Instead, it’ll need to be cleared during a process called probate, which we’ll explain later.
Another thing to check is your life insurance. A payment when you die can make a big difference to the future of your loved ones, by helping clear large debts like outstanding mortgage costs. Make sure any policies are up to date and that they provide the cover you want. We can help If you’d like to find out more about life insurance.
What’s a Lasting Power of Attorney?
It’s a sad fact that towards the end of our lives, some of us will be hit with a physical or mental decline that will mean we can’t look after ourselves, or our money. A Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) lets you name in advance one or more people you trust, who’ll make decisions for you.
To appoint an attorney for your affairs in the UK, the attorney must be over 18 with mental capacity, and not bankrupt if appointed for a property and financial affairs LPA. This can be a relative, friend or a professional e.g. a solicitor. So, if you think it’s likely you’ll need one, it’s better to act early. And it’s a good idea to discuss your decision with family members or close friends.
To complete your LPA, you’ll need to fill out a form, which you can download from the gov.uk website. The forms then need to be registered at the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG) in England, Scotland and Wales and the Office of Care and Protection in Northern Ireland. Once the forms are registered, the power of attorney will be legal. In the UK there are two types of LPA:
1. Property and financial affairs
This lets the attorney take care of the ins and outs of your finances, like bank accounts, investments, bills, collecting benefits or pensions and buying or selling property.
2. Health and welfare
This gives them control over decisions that affect your wellbeing, like hospital admissions, arranging care and even whether to resuscitate you if you’re critically ill.
Planning your funeral
By creating a detailed plan for your funeral, you can spare your loved ones from having to guess what you’d have wanted after your death.
Find a funeral provider
You can choose from larger national companies or smaller, local funeral homes. Find one that suits your location and your budget. You can leave instructions for the funeral home on the type of casket you want, the vehicles you’d like to be transported in and the preparation of your body – whether you’d like to be embalmed to preserve your remains and how you’d like to be dressed.
Set aside some money
Funeral costs can be expensive, so saving in advance for yours can make things easier. Some providers will even let you pay in instalments over as long as 25 years. So, you can put a little aside regularly and know you’re covered. Your funeral costs are paid from your estate before other debts can be collected.
Decide on your service
The type of service you’ll have will depend on whether you follow a specific religion or not. Religious funerals will be held at places of worship and you should contact yours to let them know you’d like your service there. You should be able select favourite music or hymns to make it more personal and you may also ask members of your funeral party to give readings, recite poems and talk about your life. If you’re an atheist, you can have lots of these elements in a non-religious memorial service.
Buried or cremated?
If you choose to be buried, you’ll need to select a plot. The cost of a burial plot depends on a number of factors, such as location, your personal residential status and the type of burial plot you require. More than one coffin can often be buried in a single plot, so if you’d like to be laid to rest with family members, this can be an option. You'll also need to budget for the cost of a headstone if you want a lasting memorial.
If you decide to be cremated, you can leave details on how and where you’d like your ashes to be scattered or stored. Your ashes can be placed in a burial plot, this is generally cheaper than a burial.
You can find more information on the cost of being laid to rest at Funeral Costs Help.
How to write a will
After your death, the people closest to you will most likely be dealing with shock and grief. Putting a will together that clearly outlines your wishes for the things you’ve left behind, can make it a lot easier for them.
If you don’t have a will in place before you die, your assets will be considered intestate, and they’ll be divided based on fixed legal rules. This can cause distress to your remaining relatives, so it should be avoided.
You can find details about what happens if you die without a will at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
Decide what you want to do
Begin by taking a look at all your assets, from large ones like property, investments, cars and savings down to meaningful items like watches, jewellery or ornaments. This is called your estate. But remember that any of your outstanding debts will also need to be settled from it. Then think about how you’d like your assets to be shared out and to which members of your family or friends – or if you’d like to donate any money to charity. You can also decide whether you want to set any conditions on how money is spent or property managed, by setting up a trust.
You can put your funeral wishes and bank details in your will, but it can be good to have these somewhere else that people can find easily – as some arrangements may happen before your will is read.
Joint wills don’t exist in UK law anymore. You can instead make something called a mirror will. That’s where both spouses write their own, but identical will.
Name an executor
This sounds like an ominous title, but an executor just makes sure all the details in your will are carried out after your death and deals with the legal process of probate (we’ll deal with this later). They basically tie up the loose ends of your life. Any person from your friends and family can be named as your executor, they just need to be over 18. You’ll need to ask them if they’re happy to take on the role – it can also be a good idea to name a second person, in case your first choice isn’t able to help at the time. If you die without an executor in your will, the court may arrange one.
You can also appoint an impartial professional like a solicitor and, if you have a large estate, some banks will also have an executor service.
Appoint a guardian
If you have children under 18 and don’t have a spouse, your main priority should be that they’re taken care of. Even if you do, you should also consider a guardian in case the worst happens and you both die at the same time in an accident. The guardian you choose should be someone you know well and trust with the upbringing of your children. Again, you’ll need to discuss this before you put them in your will, so it doesn’t come as a surprise.
Talk to a professional
A solicitor can write your will for around £200, and also help set up trusts. This can avoid any pitfalls that could cause legal problems, challenges from relatives and delays after your death.
A cheaper option can be to use a will-writing service. However, unlike a solicitor, those services aren’t regulated. If you have a large or complex estate you won’t be covered if there are issues with your will.
When you’ve got a draft copy of your will, check it to make sure you’ve covered the areas above and that it shares your assets in the way you wanted. To make it legal you’ll need to sign it in front of two witnesses – they can’t be your partner or anyone who’d benefit from your will. Once you have your will completed, store it in a safe and secure place. You’ll also need to review it from time to time to make sure it’s still what you want – if not, update it.
You can find more information on writing your will at age UK.
How to plan for Inheritance Tax
One major thing to understand when planning for your death is Inheritance Tax (IHT). There is an exemption for inheritance by spouses or civil partners, but if this does not apply your estate may have to pay 40% Inheritance Tax on your assets. This can cover any properties you own, savings and investments, valuables like antiques, paintings or watches and even some life insurance policies. When you’re planning for the end of your life, there are ways to reduce your Inheritance Tax bill.
Be aware of your allowance
The inheritance tax threshold or nil-rate band is currently £325,000 for the tax year 2023/2024. That means if the value of your estate is below that amount, there’s no tax to pay. If this allowance has not been fully used when the first spouse dies, the unused percentage is transferred to the surviving spouse.
For example, if you leave £32,500 to your son, then your IHT allowance remaining would be £292,500, or 90% of the available allowance. Based on the current rate of IHT, when your partner dies their allowance would have increased to £617,500, or 190% of the available allowance.
There's an additional IHT allowance for those who owned their own home (or a share of their home) and they left their home (or a share of it) to their direct descendants. The residence nil rate band is £175,000. Again, if the allowance has not been fully used when the first spouse dies, the unused percentage is transferred to the surviving spouse.
So if you're a homeowner your individual IHT allowance is £500,000.
Take advantage of gifting
You can give regular gifts to family members of up to £3,000 per year without them being charged to Inheritance Tax. There’s also some allowance for small cash gifts at things like weddings. Bigger gifts are also clear of tax if you don’t die within seven years of giving them – otherwise there will be some tax to pay, based on the years after the gift to your death.
Set up trusts
Before you die, you can choose to put some of your assets into trusts. These may not form part of your estate for Inheritance Tax. This a complicated process and needs a lot of legal work. It also comes with drawbacks and tax issues of its own.
Use any exemptions
Your spouse or civil partner will be able to inherit any ISA savings you have IHT tax-free through something called an Additional Permitted Subscription (APS). So, it can be a good idea to use your £20,000 annual ISA allowance in something like a stocks and shares ISA.
The value of a stock and shares can go down as well as up. You could get back less than invested.
If you’re in business or farming, some of your assets might get special tax relief that makes them either exempt from Inheritance Tax or taxed at a lower rate. Certain shares in the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) are also free of IHT.
Get professional advice
Inheritance Tax rules are complicated and can change. If you think you’re leaving your loved ones a large tax bill after you die, you could take advice from a professional like a financial advisor. They’ll be able to help prepare your estate so it won’t be a burden when you’re gone.
Tax rules are subject to change and are dependant on individual circumstances.
You can find more information on the latest Inheritance tax rules on the gov.uk website.
Probate is the legal process of dealing with the finances of a person’s estate after they die – mainly paying any debts and taxes that are owed, then dividing up items and money from the will.
Confirming the executor
Probate is carried about by the executor named in your will. To confirm the executor, following your death, details from your will need to be submitted to the Probate Registry, which is administered by HM Court Service. The Principal Probate Registry is situated in Central London, and there are 11 District Probate Registries around the country. The Registry will issue a Grant of Probate, so the executor has the power to deal with your estate. You can find details on applying for probate at the gov.uk website.
Dealing with your estate
The executor is then responsible for getting an accurate valuation of all your assets, from your property to bank accounts, investments and personal items.
Clearing your debts
They then have to make sure all debts and tax owed by your estate are paid off. Some debts like funeral expenses, Inheritance Tax and any solicitor’s fees for handling the estate are paid first. Then other debts like outstanding credit card bills or loans are paid. If you have joint loans with a spouse or guarantor the debt will pass to them.
If your estate doesn’t have enough money to cover your debts, it’s declared insolvent and the outstanding amounts are written off. Your family members aren’t responsible for your debts and can’t be chased for them.
Dividing your will
Once all your debts have been paid your executor, can distribute the remaining assets in your will – from property titles to smaller personal items.
When all that’s done, the executor will need to create a report with details of how the estate was divided and proof that debts were paid. This should be made available to the beneficiaries in the will.
Probate can be an easy process, or long and complicated depending on the size of the estate, whether details in the will are clear and if any beneficiaries decide to challenge it. That’s why can be important that your will is legally watertight and checked by a solicitor.
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