Put your mind at ease by writing a rock-solid will

19 July 2012

The late Stieg Larsson is probably most well-known for his best-selling Millennium Trilogy about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. However, after his sudden death in 2004 the author also became known for leaving his life partner pretty much penniless as most of his fortune went to his estranged father and brother as he’d forgotten to draw up a will.

Although most people won't be leaving quite as much money behind, this serves as a reminder of why getting your affairs in order is so important.

Drawing up a will is something we all know we should do but it frequently gets pushed aside, with more than 61% of UK adults not bothering, according to unbiased.co.uk. However, by not doing this small but important task there is no way of guaranteeing to whom your money and other assets will go.

So why aren't we more willing to draw up a will?

As a nation, the number one excuse given is apathy as 25% say they'll do it when they get older, while 11% have never thought about it, according to the unbiased.co.uk research.

However, under the rules of intestacy, when a person dies without leaving a valid will, their property and assets, known as their estate, must be shared out according to certain rules and only married or civil partners and some other close relatives can inherit.

How it's divided and who gets what depends on your own circumstances. Surviving spouses, for example, will inherit up to £250,000 of the estate automatically if there are children, rather than everything as would be the case with a will in place.

"A spouse doesn't inherit everything, contrary to popular belief, and children take control of their inheritance at age 18, but many parents may wish to postpone this as children often will not be mature enough to hold large sums of money at this age," says Anne Lewis, private client partner at solicitors Cripps Harries Hall.

If you die without a will, have no dependants and are not married, your estate goes to your nearest living relative, even if you've been estranged for years.

So why should you get one?

Along with the monetary value, another reason to get it sorted out is to avoid family arguments, explains Andrew Way, partner at Latimer Hinks Solicitors. At his company, the number of contested will cases has doubled in the past three years.

He says: "When somebody dies without a will, families can go to war over who gets what and usually the family fallout and resulting grudges last forever."

However, even if you are organised enough to draw up a will while you are alive, it needs to be valid, and up-to-date, to make any difference. An invalid will is the same as dying without one, and if it is out-of-date "this can sometimes be worse than having no will at all", warns Lewis, such as if you leave everything to an ex partner.

Wills are most commonly invalidated when beneficiaries have died, when a guardian is needed for minor children and when executors have died or moved away.

It is also not enough to make one will and hope it will last forever - the recommended guidelines say it should be reviewed every five years. However, seeing as most people won't even have one to start with, it's more realistic to try to get the papers reviewed whenever you have a major life change, such as a marriage, bankruptcy, birth or death.

Although you can make a will at any point in your life, as you get older and acquire more assets, there will be a greater reason to do so.

Besides giving you the power to decide who gets what and avoiding future family arguments, a valid will also provides financial security if you are in an unmarried relationship, in that you can make sure your partner is provided for. You can also set up trusts for young children or other vulnerable people you wish to benefit.

This allows you the flexibility of giving the money to whomever you choose, be it your grandson or a cat charity, rather than it automatically being handed out to set people.

How to go about writing a will

The document must include details such as property overseas or children from previous marriages and although it's different for everyone, a good rule of thumb is that if there are any complications then it's best to get it written professionally.

Solicitors are fully regulated and trained to write wills. It costs on average £120 for a single person or £200 for a couple, and how much you spend will depend on your own financial situation and the level of expertise and detail needed. You can find a local firm online at lawsociety.org.uk.

It is legal, and a lot cheaper, to write your own will if you wish. You can even buy a will-writing pack from WHSmith for as little as £9.99 to help you. However, most people don't have the knowledge or skills to write their own wills properly and it is easy to create an invalid document.

"Often I see clients who have tried to prepare a will themselves. A homemade will is not a good idea as the terms can be ambiguous and may not have been signed, dated and witnessed properly," warns Kathryn Harwood, spokesperson for law firm Napthens.

Online will writers

Instead of instructing a solicitor or writing a will yourself, there's another option.

Numerous will writers have sprung up online. However, if you do chose a will writer over a solicitor, use one that is approved by the Office of Fair Trading. This is because the will-writing market is unregulated, so anyone can write one and charge you for it.

A recent report from the Legal Services Board (LSB) shows there are 'systematic problems' when it comes to using will writers, including sloppiness, simple errors and poor communication, with consumers subjected to unfair sales practices and well-documented examples of fraud and deception.

The LSB has recommended that all providers of will-writing services, whether solicitors or other professionals, should be properly regulated but this is still in a consultation stage until 16 July.

If you are unsure of a company, check it's a member of an independent board, such as the Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners (STEP) or the The Institute of Professional Willwriters. More information and lists of participating members can be found at step.org and ipw.org.uk/directory.

Harwood says: "A will is perhaps the most important document most people will prepare in their lives. It is the best way to ensure your wishes are carried out upon death, and without a will there can be upset and heartbreak for the surviving family."

Will aid - what is it?

Will Aid is something you might hear about around November time each year and it's a charitable campaign that raises money for a group of UK charities. Participating solicitors agree to waive their normal fees for drawing up straightforward wills in return for a donation to these charities.

Since it was founded in 1988, Will Aid has enabled legal firms to raise more than £11 million while encouraging thousands of people to get a will. This has the dual effect of helping the solicitors get new clients and raising much needed money for the charities in question.

The suggested minimum donation is £90 for a basic will and £135 for a pair of basic mirror wills - where a couple have reflected wills, leaving their assets to each other.

More information can be found at willaid.org.uk.

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