How to leave a secure legacy

Although we spend all our lives building and protecting our wealth, a staggering 60% of us don't have a will in place to ensure our assets are passed to our loved ones when we die.

"Most people don't get round to writing a will until they're in their 50s or 60s but if you're getting married, having children or buying a house it's sensible to think about writing a will. It's about taking care of your loved ones," says Natalie Walker, head of wills at Co-operative Legal Services.

Modern relationships make it even more important. With second and third marriages increasingly common, a will can ensure that your assets are left to the people who matter.

Similarly, if you're living with someone it makes sense to have a will. While a husband, wife or civil partner is recognised in law, and would have a right to inherit if you died without a will, any other partner would have no automatic rights.

Money no object

You don't need to be mega-wealthy either. Paul Horton, associate in the wills, tax, trusts and probate department at Weightmans, says everyone should have a will regardless of their financial situation.

"If you die without one then you're relying on the intestacy rules and these are unlikely to distribute your assets according to your wishes," he explains.

As an example, in England and Wales, if you're married and die without a will, it's not guaranteed  that your assets will pass automatically to your spouse. Instead, if they exceed £450,000, half of the excess could end up going to your parents, siblings and nephews and nieces.

However complicated your affairs, getting your will written is a relatively straight-forward process. "People do worry about writing their will but, if you speak to an experienced professional, it should be simple," says Walker. "They'll help you work out what you've got and what you need to do to pass it on."

A bit of homework before you see a solicitor can help too. Will Aid – a special partnership between the legal profession and nine of the UK's best-loved charities – has a handy will planner tool on its website.

"This runs through your assets, debts and who you'd like to leave money to," explains Sue Davison, spokesperson for Will Aid. "Taking a completed form along to your solicitor will speed up the process."

Also think about how you want to pass on your wealth. A will can include a specific amount, for example, £100 to a neighbour for looking after the cat; or specific items, such as a particular piece of jewellery for a favourite niece.

It's also common to divide estates up into percentages, for instance half to your children and the remaining half shared equally between grandchildren. This is sensible as you don't know how much your estate will be worth or, in some cases, how many grandchildren you might have when you die. As well as divvying up your wealth, you can also appoint guardians if you have any young children.

You'll also need to appoint executors. These are the people who will administer your estate when you die and you can name up to four people with family members a common choice. It's worth speaking to them about it first too, though, as they can decline the role if they like.

Put it in writing

You don't have to use a solicitor to get your will written. There are plenty of alternatives. You could use a will writer, an online service or even pick up a DIY will kit from WHSmith.

But while these services may be cheaper, the experts recommend taking legal advice. "If you don't have a lot of assets and your affairs are fairly simple it can work but it can also leave a terrible mess that could potentially destroy a family. A solicitor will make sure your will is legal and reflects your wishes," says Walker.

How much it costs to draw up your will depends on your circumstances and what you want to achieve. As a rough guide, Walker says that a simple will for one person will cost around £125 while a mirror will for a couple with the same wishes would cost between £150 and £200.

"If you want to include inheritance planning or you have complicated affairs it will cost more," she adds. It's also sensible to review your will on a regular basis. Horton recommends checking it every three to four years or if there are any significant changes such as a large inheritance, retirement or divorce.

Additionally, in England and Wales, if you get married, any existing wills are revoked so, even if your wishes haven't changed, you'll need to get a new one.

And, finally, think about where you keep your will. Although there are will databases, none of these are compulsory so, to avoid future panic, make sure you tell someone where your will is or leave details with your paperwork.