Do you need to make a will?
What happens if I don't make one?
If you don't have a will when you die, your money and possessions will be distributed according to the rules of intestacy. These set out precisely which relatives get what proportion of your estate, depending on its value, whether you are married and whether you have children.
The state's view of how it should be divided up may differ from what you would have wanted. Surviving spouses, in particular, are likely to lose out, because they may inherit only a proportion of estates worth over £250,000, rather than the whole lot, as would normally be the case if there was a will in place.
What about if we are not married?
If a couple is not married, even though they may have been partners for decades, then the surviving partner has no automatic inheritance rights when the first partner dies, and could end up in serious financial trouble.
Without a will spelling out what they should receive, the survivor's only option is to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, but they'll probably need the help of a solicitor.
I'm divorced - is a will important for me?
If you have already made a will, your divorce does not alter its legal standing, but you may feel your former partner is well cared for in a new relationship. If this is the case, it's important to make a new will - probably one that doesn't include your ex but does cater for any children from the marriage.
If you remarry or enter into a civil partnership, any former wills become invalid, so you will need to draw up a new one.
Are there non-financial benefits to making a will?
If you have children, you will need to make a will in order to specify what arrangements should be made for them if one or both parents die before the children reach 18. This may involve financial considerations but it will also mean spelling out who looks after them.
Another important consideration is that a will speeds up the whole process of sorting out the estate, and sidesteps any financial and legal uncertainties at what can be a difficult time.
Can a will be used to reduce inheritance tax?
If you are passing everything on to your spouse or civil partner on your death, there won't be any inheritance tax to pay, because they count as 'exempt beneficiaries'. But when the second partner dies, IHT on what's left of the estate may be an issue.
The law was changed in 2007, to enable the £325,000 nil-rate band to be transferred between couples on the death of the first spouse or civil partner (so that when the second partner dies, the first £650,000 of the estate is free of IHT).
As a result, many people assume there is no longer much need to make a will in order to minimise IHT.
However, there are several circumstances where writing and maintaining an up-to-date will is crucial if you are to make use of all the tax allowances available, which otherwise would be lost forever.
This may involve using trusts, which tend to be quite complex and expensive to set up, so are only really cost-effective for larger estates.
How should I go about writing a will?
It's possible to get do-it-yourself kits from suppliers such as www.lawpack.co.uk. However, if your family circumstances are in any way complicated, or if you think your estate will exceed the nil-rate band and you want to try and reduce your IHT liability, it makes a lot of sense to take advice and get an expert to do it for you.
This article was originally published in our sister publication Money Observer
The tax levied on the total value of your estate after you die. IHT has to be paid by the beneficiaries of your estate before they can receive any of the money from it. The money can’t be taken from the value of the estate _– it has to be paid before any money can be released. There is an IHT threshold – known as the “nil-rate band” – below which no tax is levied (£325,000 in 2011/12). Any amount above the nil-rate band is subject to tax at 40%. If your estate totals £600,000, there is no tax on the first £325,000; however your estate will pay 40% tax on the remaining £275,000, a total of £110,000. Prudent tax planning can reduce your IHT liability, so always consult a specialist solicitor.
Everything you own: all your assets (property, cars, investments, savings, insurance payouts, artwork, furniture etc) minus any liabilities (debts, current bills, payments still owed on assets like cars and houses, credit card balances and other outstanding loans). When you’re alive this is called your wealth; when you’re dead, it becomes your estate.