Writing your will – don’t leave it too late

Posted on April 25, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
People discussing a Will

A friend of mine was left a widow with four small children at a very young age. In addition to coping with the death of her husband in a road accident that took his life so abruptly, she had to deal with the fact that he hadn’t written a will. He owned a successful music business and they had a property; it was a legal nightmare that took her years to sort out. According to unbiased.co.uk 70% of the UK population don’t have a will. That’s a rather large and worrying percentage.

You decide – not the law

Without expanding on this tragic story, the moral of it is – make a will whatever age you are. At the time my friend and her husband were both under 30, and no doubt the idea of making a will seemed like something that could definitely be left until much later, but if you have assets, you can’t leave writing a will until you reach some later age. Just remember, if you write a will, you decide who gets what; but if you don’t write a will, the law decides who gets your possessions.

What does the law decide if I die without a will?

When a person dies without leaving a will, the law gives their property and money to the nearest legal next of kin. For example, TV presenter Jill Dando and author Steig Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) died without wills and their money went to their fathers; not to their partners, because they weren’t married to those partners. You may think that if you’re married, your spouse will be fine if you die intestate: not necessarily, because in England and Wales the law will only give your spouse the first £250,000 of your estate. The rest will go to your children, if your estate is worth more than £250,000. Depending on the size of your assets, this may leave your spouse totally dependent on the financial goodwill of your children.

If you are childless and single, and without next of kin, the government will take it all; hence the growth in firms who track down the beneficiaries of wills. Have any of you watched the BBC series Heir Hunters? It’s currently in its ninth series. I must admit, it’s quite fascinating and the fact that there is so much demand for these services is another indicator of the situation with will writing in the UK.


Writing a will

Where do I start making a will?

The government website suggests you start with some free advice at a Citizen’s Advice Bureau. For many people making a will is a quite straightforward process and you don’t need to involve the cost of a solicitor. You need to appoint an executor: this person will see that the wishes of your will are carried out and you will need to have your will formally witnessed – and signed by those witnesses – to make sure it is legally valid and nobody can challenge it. You can buy a form online from various solicitors, but you’ll also find that W.H.Smith sells them as well. The price is around £9.99.

Where do I keep my will?

There are several places you can keep your will, but in my opinion, the most important thing you need to do is make sure the executor and your nearest family members know where it is, so that when they need it, they don’t have to search for it. Searching for a lost will may be a great plot device in a novel, but it’s not an ideal real life scenario. Apart from keeping it somewhere at home, you can leave it with your solicitor, your bank, or a will storage service. You’ll find them online.

More complex situations

You definitely need a will and legal advice if you are in any of the following situations:

  • Share property ownership with a person who isn’t your spouse or civil partner
  • Wish to leave money/property to a dependant who can’t look after themselves
  • You have several family members likely to make a claim on your assets, e.g. children from another marriage or a second spouse
  • Your permanent home is outside the UK
  • You have property overseas
  • You own a business

Finally, you must be over 18 and of sound mind when you make your will, and it must be written; a verbal declaration isn’t legal. Also, choose your witnesses carefully, because you’re not allowed to leave a witness – or their spouse – anything in your will. And, don’t forget to keep your will updated. It’s recommended that you review it every five years, and when you make any significant life change such as marriage, or divorce. A will is something we’d prefer to leave to the future – but as too many stories show; the time to make your will is now.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.