Dying without a will can risk all the family's finances

Many think a will is not necessary because they believe family and friends will decide who gets what of any assets – but this is not the case.

Thinking about a time when you are no longer around may feel uncomfortable, but failing to plan ahead can risk leaving a serious financial headache and expense for loved-ones who are left behind.

New research shows that six in ten adults are taking this risk as they do not have a will. Many think a will is not necessary because they believe family and friends will decide who gets what of any assets – but this is not the case.

When someone dies without a will, rules of ‘intestacy’ kick in – and it falls to the State to determine how a person’s worldly goods are distributed. The decisions made may not reflect their wishes.

Big changes: Linda and Chris Bridgeman with their grandchildren

Big changes: Linda and Chris Bridgeman with their grandchildren

Unmarried couples have no inheritance rights under this law while the complexity of modern families is not addressed, meaning children from previous marriages could miss out.

Such anomalies are currently under consideration in a review by the Law Commission aiming to make the will-making process friendlier and more appropriate to modern family arrangements.

But this is no reason to put off writing a will. Karen Barrett, from find-an-adviser website Unbiased, says: ‘People need to understand the huge benefits of having a will and the even bigger risks of not having one.’

Barrett says many procrastinate because they believe they are too young or perhaps think they do not have enough financial assets. Other concerns are costs – or simply not knowing how to go about organising a will.

Liz Alley, of wealth manager Brewin Dolphin, says: ‘Some individuals may argue they do not need a will because they either have little money in the bank or believe death is a long way off.

‘But people need to think about who they want to inherit their belongings, such as their home, car, jewellery – and even pets.

‘It is important to put this down in writing so family and friends can honour their wishes.’

The lack of a will can trigger bitter disputes after death and some loved ones can miss out entirely.

James Antoniou, head of wills at Co-op Legal Services, says: ‘Dying without a valid will can lead to confusion and complexity for the families left behind. To improve the chances of your wishes being carried out, it is crucial to put an effective will in place.’

ORGANISE PAPERWORK

Find a solicitor through websites such as lawsociety.org.uk or unbiased.co.uk. Costs vary but expect to pay between £100 and £200 for a single will and £150 to £300 for a couple’s joint or ‘mirror’ wills.

Alternatively go to a legal expert – Co-op Legal Services has an online service. Prices start from £150 for a single will or £234 for mirror wills.

Consumer organisation Which? also has a service to draft a will online and have it checked by a specialist. The cost is £119 for a single will or £189 for mirror wills. Visit wills.which.co.uk.

Peace of mind: Emma Peak helped several charities by making a will

Peace of mind: Emma Peak helped several charities by making a will

Will Aid is a campaign running until the end of this month. Its aim is to encourage more people to get their wills organised.

It is open to all ages and is based on a partnership between the legal profession and nine UK charities – including ActionAid, Age UK and Save the Children.

Solicitors waive their fees for writing a basic will, asking instead for a voluntary donation to Will Aid. The recommended donation is £95 per person or £150 for a couple. Visit willaid.org.uk.

Emma Peak set up her will 12 months ago and now has peace of mind, knowing she has this vital legal document in place. The 31-year-old, from Sunderland, works for charity Christian Aid and signed up to the Will Aid campaign last November.

She says: ‘Writing a will is the sort of issue you can keep putting off. But with so many bad things going on in the world right now, it is important to have something in place just in case the unexpected happens. I do not want to risk leaving my loved-ones with a lot of financial mess to sort out.’

After registering with Will Aid, Emma received a list of local solicitors taking part in the scheme and chose one based just a few minutes’ walk from her home.

Emma says: ‘I wanted to get my will drawn up professionally and felt that a solicitor taking part in the Will Aid scheme would be trustworthy.

‘After filling in the online form, I had a chat face-to-face with the solicitor which lasted for around an hour. I then had to go back just one more time to sign the documents.’ Emma used her will to state that certain valuable possessions should go to particular family members. She was also able to leave something for her godchildren and a number of favourite charities.

Emma gave the suggested donation of £95 to Will Aid.

She says: ‘My solicitor was offering her time and skills for free. I am also closely involved with some of the charities which benefit from Will Aid – so I was happy to donate my £95.’

Our baby gave us nudge we needed to make a will 

In safe hands: Dave and Megan Jones, with their son Jude, made mirror wills

In safe hands: Dave and Megan Jones, with their son Jude, made mirror wills

Dave Murray Jones and wife Megan were prompted to think about writing a will after the birth of their son, Jude, now 14 months.

The couple, who live in Peckham, South-East London, contacted a solicitor specialising in wills earlier this year.

They found one, based in Sussex, via find-an-adviser website Unbiased.

‘The issue of will-writing had been weighing on our minds for some time,’ says 34-year- old Dave, who works in technology as a product manager.

‘It was first mentioned when we bought our home two-and-half years ago, but we did not get around to it. But then, when we had our baby this gave us another nudge.’

The couple talked to their solicitor over Skype and arranged mirror wills for a cost of around £200.

Dave says: ‘Our solicitor explained everything to us clearly. All Megan and I had to do was decide who we want our estate to go to – and to nominate a guardian for Jude, should anything happen to both of us.’

AVOID DIY DISASTERS 

People with straightforward financial affairs may be tempted to buy a DIY will kit, either off-the-shelf or online for a few pounds. But be wary of taking the DIY option without legal handholding.

There are numerous legal pitfalls to navigate – and there are risks of things going wrong.

Some of the most common problems with DIY wills include documents being written in ambiguous language; the will not dealing with all the assets in the estate; and paperwork not being signed correctly.

Co-op’s Antoniou says: ‘We often have issues arise from badly drafted wills or unclear documents.

‘In some cases, this can cause as many problems as having no will at all. If a will is open to misinterpretation, the courts may have to decide what the intentions were. This can prove a long, difficult – and potentially costly – process for families.’

While drawing up a DIY will can work for those with simple financial arrangements such as when all assets are going to a surviving spouse, most people are better off seeking professional help from a trained solicitor.

Tips:

  • Make sure a chosen legal professional is both regulated and insured.
  • Ensure the will accurately reflects your wishes.
  • Check the will is legally valid.
  • Store a will safely – and tell your family where it is.
Detail: A will includes funeral plans and bequests of jewellery

Detail: A will includes funeral plans and bequests of jewellery

REFRESH REGULARLY 

Once a will is written it should not be forgotten.

It is worth revisiting the paperwork every few years or after key events – such as marriage, having children or following divorce.

Nicola Walman is partner at London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen. She says: ‘Most people might not be aware that divorce and marriage revoke any previous will. Failure to understand this rule means that children of a first relationship, say, named in the original will, may get far less – or even nothing – to the benefit of a second spouse, which is probably not what the deceased intended.’

Linda and Chris Bridgeman rewrote their wills earlier this year. The couple, who live in Bristol, had both previously arranged wills when they were in their 50s.

But since then, their lives have changed, including a house move and the arrival of three grandchildren aged between eight and ten – with one more on the way.

The couple were keen to update their wills to reflect all these events. Linda, 67, says: ‘When we enquired about making changes to our existing wills – including making provision for the grandchildren – the quote for an update was expensive.

‘We decided to use the Co-op’s online service instead to draw up new wills as the service had been recommended by our daughter.’

Linda, a retired teacher, and 70- year-old Chris, a former product administrator, drew up mirror wills for £234.

Linda says: ‘We filled in all our details and found the online service easy to understand.

‘After arranging a call with one of the Co-op’s will-writers to finalise our instructions, we received the draft wills.’

The couple checked the documents and made a couple of amendments before sending off the final versions.

Linda adds: ‘We put off sorting our wills for such a long time because we thought it would be costly and time-consuming. But we now wish we had done it earlier.

‘We found the service efficient and reasonably priced. Our wills are now being stored by the Co-op free of charge.’

The chance to make clear all your last wishes 

The main considerations in putting a will together include:

  • Who will inherit the estate.
  • Distribution of sentimental belongings such as jewellery.
  • Details of any charitable gifts. 
  • Plans for the funeral – including preferences such as cremation or burial, religious or humanist – and even the music you want played.
  • Names of legal guardians for any young children left behind (permission should be sought before appointing guardians). 
  • A ‘letter of wishes’ to leave alongside a will to explain, more personally, the reasons for choosing certain beneficiaries or any other personal messages.