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Five reasons to write a will

Writing a will should be one of the cornerstones of your financial planning. Having one in place can provide valuable peace of mind that any property or assets you own will pass to who you want when you die.

What you’ll learn

  • How intestacy rules work
  • What the role of an executor is
  • Why you should update your will when your circumstances change

Death is never the cheeriest of subjects, but failing to think about what will happen to your estate when you die could leave your loved ones facing a financial and administrative nightmare. If you die without a will in place, your estate will be divided according to intestacy laws. These rules mean your estate may not be distributed as you’d want it to be.

Here are five reasons why writing a will is so important.

1. If you die without a will, you won’t have a say on who your estate goes to

When you write a will, you can state who you want to leave your property and assets to. If you die without having written one, then you’ll die ‘intestate’. Under intestacy rules, if you’re married or in a civil partnership and have children, your spouse is entitled to receive your personal possessions and the first £250,000 of your estate (free of tax and costs).

If your estate is worth more than this, then anything above £250,000 - after costs and the payment of any inheritance tax - is divided, with half going to your spouse and the other half going to your children once they reach the age of 18. If you don’t have children, but you’re married or in a civil partnership, your spouse will receive all of your estate.

If you’re unmarried and die intestate, even if you’ve lived with a partner for many years, they won’t legally be entitled to any of your possessions. Instead, any children you have will receive the proceeds of your entire estate, once they reach the age of 18.

If you don’t have children and die unmarried without a will, your entire estate will go to your parents, or if your parents have died, to your brothers and sisters (or their children). If you don’t have any siblings, your estate will pass to your grandparents but if they’ve already died, it’ll go to your uncles and aunts (or their children). If you have no living relatives at all when you die and you don’t have a will in place, your estate will go to the crown.

2. You can appoint guardians for your children

If you die without a will, and there’s no other parent with parental responsibility, it’s up to the courts to decide who takes care of your children. This may not necessarily be the people you want to look after them, so it’s essential to record your wishes in a will.

You can appoint anyone you want to be a guardian for your children, as long as they’re over the age of 18 and prepared to take on this responsibility, so you don’t have to choose a family member. Any guardian you choose will have a legal duty of care towards your child and will be responsible for their education, upbringing, personal safety and care until your child reaches the age of 18.

3. You can record your funeral wishes

Losing a relative or loved one is often deeply distressing and can be even more so if you don’t know what kind of funeral or burial they’d have wanted. Making a note of your wishes in your will, including whether you want to be buried or cremated and whether you want to donate any of your organs when you die, can mean there’s less for them to worry about and you’ll also get the send-off you wanted.

4. You can decide who administers your estate when you die

When you write a will, you appoint executors, whose role is to carry out your wishes and ensure that your estate and assets are distributed in accordance with your will. One of the first things they must do is to apply to the Probate Registry for a Grant of Probate, or ‘confirmation’ in Scotland, which gives them the authority to deal with your property and assets.

If you die intestate, your estate will be administered by a member of your family. Rather than applying for a Grant of Probate, they’ll need to apply for Letters of Administration, which allow them to gather your assets together and distribute them. As with the intestacy rules there’s a strict order as to who can apply for Letters of Administration, which may impose unwanted obligations on certain members of your family.

5. You may be able to reduce the amount of inheritance tax (IHT) you pay

Writing a will may also enable you to legitimately reduce your IHT liability, which is payable at a rate of 40% on the value of your estate above the current threshold of £325,000 (for the 2016-17 tax year).

For example, if you die intestate, IHT would be payable on the value of the residuary estate that passes to your children, as they’re not IHT exempt. This could easily be avoided if a will was prepared in which all of your estate passes to your surviving spouse, who is IHT exempt.

Update your will as your circumstances change

Remember, once you’ve written a will, you can’t just tuck it in a drawer and forget about it. It’ll need updating as your circumstances change. For example, if you get married, any existing will is automatically revoked, so you’ll need to make a new one. You can, however, include an ‘expected marriage’ clause in your will, under which you state that marriage doesn’t revoke the will. Getting divorced doesn’t automatically revoke your will, but any clauses naming your former spouse will no longer be valid.

If you want to make amendments to your will at any point, you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch. Often, all you need to do is write an addendum to the original will, known as a codicil and ensure it’s properly witnessed. This can then be kept alongside your existing will. If you need to make significant changes and want to draw up a new will, you’ll need to state that this revokes all previous wills and codicils.

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