This Entry is not about how to write your will. The only thing it says on the subject of how to write your will, and it says it again and again, is go to a lawyer or other professional. There are few pieces of paperwork that you want to be perfect for sure, and one of those is your will, because you won't be around to make corrections. In the UK, lawyers can charge from as little as £25 for reviewing a will. They can charge from £125 for drafting it. Compare the costs with insuring your car or buying your family presents at Christmas. This is not something you need to do every year, and it begins to look like a bargain1.
No - this Entry is about how to make the experience fun!
This may seem a strange concept - after all, wills are about what happens after you are dead, and therefore they must be full of doom and gloom, embarrassed silences and soggy sausage rolls. It may seem bizarre to consider that writing your will could be in any way entertaining at all.
However, consider this - what is the best thing about Christmas? Surely, it is choosing presents for those you love? What is the best thing about giving to charity? Isn't it the warm glow you get inside from knowing that your donation will buy food for a week, or stamps for a year, or a tree in a forest?
Your Estate is the sum total of your possessions2. You don't need to accumulate masses of paperwork to calculate this as your net worth is likely to change on a day-to-day basis. The fluid value of your estate means that you will normally need to make approximate divisions when dividing up your worldly goods in a will.
To make life easier, you could simply divide any money you have (from the sale of your house perhaps, or from cashing in on those old Railtrack shares) between charities and specified survivors on a percentage basis, and let the lawyers work it out after you've died.
You can of course leave fixed sums, and add conditions about what they are to be spent on. It might be worth making the conditions non-binding, because circumstances change. However, there is something very satisfying about stipulating that your legacy to a niece or nephew should be spent on travel or training on the grounds that both expand the mind. Of course, there is a glorious ambiguity about whether or not their minds actually need expanding.
If you have a will, you can make sure that your possessions go to the people who are best able to deal with them - not everyone would greet your collection of cool Norwegian Jazz CDs or a whole load of books on extraterrestrial zoology with the pleasure and respect they deserve. It is a nice gesture to return special gifts like jewellery or pictures to the people who gave them to you.
The Only Certainty is Change
Another good reason for making a will is that things change! Even if you look at the intestacy3 rules and think 'that's fine, I don't need to bother with a will', the risk is that you will put it out of your mind. Then maybe some years later you run off with a racing-driver, or have a child, or get married, or divorced, or something... If you already have a will, you are more likely to revisit it and change it than if you have just taken a look at the intestacy rules and think 'that'll do - more or less'.
'Find the Lady' - or 'How Your Estate Can be Wasted Counting Black Sheep'
Quite apart from the fact that your collection of Northumbrian apostle spoons may end up with some brute of a cousin who won't appreciate them, there are three other major problems with dying intestate:
Even if things go smoothly, it takes much longer to deal with an intestacy than if there is a will.
A common-law husband or wife4 is not recognised, and separation is not treated in the same way as divorce. For example, your separated spouse could inherit the house that you share with your partner.
The rules of intestacy will be followed officiously. So if there is a long-lost sibling last heard of entering the Bermuda Triangle who inherits under the rules, that person must be traced and contacted, or at the very least thorough and exhaustive enquiries made. If they are dead and had children, they will all have to be traced. And so on. All this can take years, and it might all be for a person who you would never have wanted to inherit under your will.
Getting Your Will Drawn Up and Checked
Whatever you do, don't try this at home without any kind of guidance or advice. There are will writing kits available in stationery stores in the UK (and, presumably, elsewhere), and of course it is easy to avoid the pitfalls you know about. However, the reason for not using one of these kits and going to a professional instead is because of the large number of pitfalls you don't know about.
- Step One - Think about what you want to do for the people and the causes you care about.
- Step Two - Write it down in your own words as simply as possible.
- Step Three - Deliver this to a lawyer, or other will-writing professional for their input.
There - that was nice and easy, wasn't it?
The letter to your lawyer is not a will5. If you have children or grandchildren; if you are separated or if you are living with someone you are not married to; if you own a property with someone else; or, if you want to leave money to young children, or to adults who are not capable of managing their own affairs - go to a lawyer.
A lawyer can draw up your will with the herinafters and heretofores for you. They are paid not just to know about pitfalls, but to know all the long words too.
Where There's a Will, There's a Way
The best bit for you is having the pleasure and warm feeling of generosity of deciding who gets what, and why. The best bit for your relations and for anyone who is important to you, but not related, is that it is substantially easier - and cheaper all round - if you have taken this important step and prepared in advance. Of course, if you don't make a will, it isn't you who lives to regret it.
The Law Society of England and Wales - information about solicitors, and a source site for most things legal in England and Wales.
Public Trust - the leading will writing agency in New Zealand.
A guide to Making a Will in New Zealand, which includes a brief overview of intestacy in New Zealand, and other issues.