You might want to make financial provisions for your dependents, name the legal custodians of children or pets, or just specify who you trust to delete your internet search history. However, one of the most important reasons for making a will is that dying without a will can very quickly create a complicated and even contentious set of problems for your loved ones.
A will sets out what you want to happen to your estate (property, possessions, savings, even pets and children) after death, and if there isn’t one, then your estate is subject to the English rules of intestacy, under which only married or civil partners and some other close relatives can inherit. The complexity of these rules, and the potential exclusions involved, could mean part of your legacy is a large inheritance tax bill, or even an ugly family dispute over who inherited what after you’ve gone.
If you’ve worked hard to accumulate financial assets to leave behind, you probably don’t want them funding solicitors’ fees to settle an acrimonious family fall-out which could have been avoided by having a clear will that makes your wishes known.
A good starting point for your will is to draw up a list of assets you own with rough valuations. Remember that assets owned jointly may pass automatically to the surviving joint owner outside the terms of a will – this is often the case with a house that you may own with your partner and also with bank accounts that are in joint names. If you are not sure, then check with a lawyer/your bank.
You should then consider how you would like to pass on your assets under the terms your will. Typically most people in a long-term relationship want to leave the majority or all their assets to their surviving partner. If they are married or in a civil partnership, this will also mean that the assets their surviving partner receives will not be subject to inheritance tax, as they can benefit from a spouse exemption.
Where there are children, then typically assets only pass to them directly if both parents have passed away, and often under the terms of a will trust to protect children from inheriting too much at too young an age.
You may also want to leave specific cash amounts, known as legacies, to family members and friends. Alternatively (or in addition) you may want to leave different people, prized possessions to help remember you. Leaving someone a gift via your will, however small, can mean a lot to those you leave behind.
Children and Guardians
One of the most important decisions to make, where you have children, is who should act as their guardians, in the event that both parents have died. It’s important to select family members/friends who you feel would be willing and able to take on parental responsibility for your children, and provide them with a safe and secure home and upbringing. It’s often also important to consider who in your family/friendship group would understand and share your parenting values and will maintain some consistency around how your children are brought up. You should discuss your guardian choices with the proposed guardians to see if they would be willing to step into that role.
With an increasing number of us owning pets, it’s also important to consider who would take care of your animals after your lifetime, and again discuss this with them in advance to make sure they would be comfortable taking on such a role.
Executors and Trustees
You should then consider who should be the executor of your will. Typically two people are chosen but it can just be one person. They are responsible for dealing with the administration of your estate but will often seek the support of a law firm, who can then step in and help on all the probate matters.
The role of the executor is to: gather information on the assets of your estate; obtain valuations; prepare and submit an inheritance tax return; apply for a grant of probate; and then distribute out your estate in accordance with the terms of your will. If you have created a trust under the terms of your will (e.g. to benefit children), then the relevant assets will be transferred to the individuals you have selected in advance to act as trustees. Typically the trustees will be the same persons as the executors, but they can differ. Normally a surviving partner/spouse would be named as executor and often act alongside another family member or friend, or in some instances a professional executor such as a solicitor. What works for you and your family will depend on the complexity of your estate, dynamics between family and friends, and who you trust to take care of your estate with appropriate care and attention.
Preparing a will
It’s helpful to consider all of the above points before preparing a will. You can then either complete a will on your own using one of the many online companies that provide such support. This is a quick and efficient way of preparing a will, but it does have its limitations and you may not be able to fully assess the legal and tax implications of the decisions you have made using such a route.
Alternatively you can approach a solicitor or will writer to draft your will on your behalf. They will typically charge a fixed fee for their services and will need to fully advise you on the legal and tax implications of the decisions you make.