Direct Line magazine

Your complete guide to making a will

Updated on: 15 September 2022

Couple sitting at a desk writing their will together.

Disclaimer: The information in this guide is for general guidance on your rights and is not legal advice.

The subject of death isn’t easy to think about, let alone talk about with loved ones. But the reality is, if you don’t plan for the future, there’ll be no way to make sure your money, property or possessions are left to the right people.

This guide will explain why it’s so important to have a will, and give you all the information you need to write a good one.

Why do you need a will?

Wills aren’t just about wealth. They’re legal documents that you create so you can pass on treasured items to your loved ones when you die. If you pass away without leaving a will, your final wishes may be ignored, as standard regulations will be followed. 

So, if you want to leave jewellery to a dear friend, it’s important to put it in writing. Otherwise, ex-partners or estranged family members may lay claim to your property, finances or possessions, which can be extremely distressing for those left behind.

Yet, according to research published in 2018 by Macmillan Cancer Support, 63% of UK residents haven’t written a will at all. Perhaps even more surprising is that almost half (a whopping 42%) of the over 55s don’t have a will, either.

And, of those who have written a will, around 1.5 million people may have unwittingly voided it by getting married. Another common mistake is forgetting to update your will as your family grows, so you miss off someone important (or leave in an ex).

So, not only is it important to have a will, but it’s perhaps even more important to keep it up to date. Like many people, you may have put off writing a will due to the following reasons:

  • You haven’t got round to it yet
  • You don’t feel you have anything valuable to leave behind
  • You don’t think you need a will until you’re older

But even if you don’t think your possessions are valuable, it’s worth making sure they’re passed on to people or charitable organisations who will appreciate them.

What’s included in a will?

Your money, property and personal possessions are collectively known as your ‘estate’. The main purpose of a will is to set out how your estate will be divided when you die.

You may want your savings to go to children, siblings, friends, charities or other causes close to your heart. You might decide to leave property to a relative or split it between friends. It’s completely up to you.

A will means that any decisions about what happens to your estate stay firmly in your hands. It’s also where you should nominate someone to look after any children under 18 years of age.

What are the benefits of making a will?

First and foremost, a will makes it easier for your loved ones in the event of your death. When a family member passes away, it’s tough for all involved, so taking care of your finances and property will help ease the stress. Having a will also helps you:

  • Minimise disputes. During stressful times, disputes can easily escalate. A clear will removes the opportunity for arguments over what might have been promised to different people.

  • Appoint a guardian for your children. You can decide who’ll be responsible for looking after your kids, rather than leaving it to the courts. Your choice will influence the way they’re brought up, so it’s something you’ll want to include in a legally-binding document.

  • Share any funeral requests. You can include requests in your will, such as whether you’d like to be buried or cremated, or even the music you’d like played.

  • Nominate who’s responsible for carrying out your wishes. This person is called the ‘executor’. You can choose whoever you like, but it’s advisable to make sure it’s someone trustworthy and reliable, as well as a person who understands your wishes.

  • Structure your financial planning. You can make sure your assets are divided as you’d like. An estimated £175 million in assets is lost each year due to relatives dying without having a will (or it being outdated).

  • Get peace of mind. Knowing that everything will be taken care of after you’ve gone can put you at ease.

  • Give to charity. You can leave a charitable legacy in your will to remember a cause that’s important to you.

What happens if you die without a will?

When someone dies without a will, it's known as 'intestate' and their estate becomes subject to intestacy laws. This section of UK law is used to decide who’s entitled to the assets from the estate, under the rules of inheritance.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as inheritance can be straightforward and leave no-one out of pocket. However, some people currently don’t have the legal right to inherit, including:

  • Unmarried partners
  • Same-sex couples not in a civil partnership
  • Relations by marriage
  • Close friends
  • Carers

Plus, for some relatives, there are certain restrictions. Citizens Advice breaks this down into key relationships:

1. Spouses and civil partners

At the time of death, you must be married or in a civil partnership for your partner to inherit your assets without a will. If you’re divorced or have legally ended your civil partnership, your ex can’t inherit, however if you’re separated, your ex will still be entitled to your assets.

The amount a partner will inherit depends on whether the deceased has children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. If the estate is worth more than £250,000 and there are no surviving children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the partner inherits:

  • All personal property and belongings
  • The whole of the estate

However, if there are children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, the partner will inherit:

  • All personal property and belongings
  • The first £250,000 of the estate
  • Half of the remaining estate, with the other half going to any children

2. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren

How much children will inherit depends on whether there is a surviving spouse or civil partner. If there’s no surviving partner, the entire estate will be shared equally among surviving children.

Where there’s a surviving partner, half of the value of the estate above £250,000 will be divided equally by the children. 

So, if the estate is worth £400,000, the first £250,000 goes to the partner, leaving £150,000. That £150,000 is then split in half, with the first half going to the partner and the second half being spread between the children.

Adopted children have the right to inherit under the rules of intestacy. Children also inherit under intestate rules if their parents weren’t married or didn’t enter a civil partnership.

The same goes for grandparents and great-grandparents who’ve died intestate (without a will). 

Grandchildren and great-grandchildren will only inherit if there’s no surviving partner and no surviving children of the deceased. Children won’t receive the inheritance until they’re 18 years old. Trustees will manage the inheritance until that time.

3. Other close relatives

Parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews can inherit under the rules of intestacy. However, this will depend on a few things - namely, other living relatives, including:

  • A surviving spouse or civil partner
  • Children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren
  • Nephews and nieces – on the condition that the parent directly-related to the deceased is also dead

The following relatives may have a right to inherit if there is no other surviving family:

  • Grandparents
  • Uncles and aunts
  • Half-uncles and half-aunts

What if there are no surviving relatives?

If someone dies without a will, and with no relatives who are eligible to inherit under intestacy rules, their estate will go to the Crown. You might hear this referred to as ‘bona vacantia’. If someone close to you has passed away without a will, you can determine who can inherit their estate by answering some questions at Gov.uk.

Having a will in place ensures your loved ones don’t have to worry about intestate rules. It’s a way to minimise the risk of your estate ending up in the wrong hands, or a larger slice than necessary going to the taxman.

What happens to jointly owned property?

One of the biggest assets you might own is your house. If you jointly own your home, you’ll either be beneficial joint tenants or have tenancies in common. For the former, if one partner dies without a will, the other will automatically inherit the whole property.

The same happens with joint bank or building society accounts. As such, it won’t count as part of the deceased’s estate when it’s being valued.

It’s slightly different if you’re tenants in common, as the surviving partner won’t necessarily inherit the other’s share.

How do intestacy rules work?

Here’s an example of how intestacy rules work (and why wills are important), taken from the BBC website:

Brian was responsible for administering his cousin Peter’s estate, after he died without making a will. He left behind an estate worth around £700,000. Dividing it out took about two years, cost thousands of pounds and ended up with 17 people splitting the estate. Some of them had never met Peter.

Brian said: “We had to pay £240,000 in inheritance tax, so that hurt. If he had gone to a solicitor or a nice little company which I’ve used, they would have sorted all that out for him.”

“It took two years of my life. I took it on as a bit of a challenge really, and I felt obliged to do it because we were close.

"I think my message to everyone would be to please make a will, because then you can give your money to the people of your choice.”

Find out more about Brian’s story from the BBC website

When is the right time to make a will?

Unsurprisingly, a higher percentage of young people don’t have a will. The older you are, the more likely you are to have one. That’s not to say there’s a ‘correct’ age to write a will.

But, as you hit key life milestones – such as buying a house, having children or experiencing the loss of a close family member – it’s likely you’ll realise the importance of protecting your legacy. A will is especially important if you have people who depend on you, financially.

Age % without a will
18-34 76%
35-54 68%
55+ 36%

Source: Unbiased

It’s easy to let it slip to the bottom of your to-do list. But here’s why key events in your life will remind you to create or update your will:

  • Having children. Children are completely dependent on their parents, but as they grow up, their needs can change. This might affect how you’d like your estate divided. You’ll also want to name a guardian while they’re under 18.
  • Major relationship changes. Getting married, divorced or re-married is likely to change your main beneficiaries. Remember, if you decide not to re-marry, any life partner will need to be named in your will to be entitled to anything.
  • Buying a house. When you buy a house, the value of your estate shoots up. It’ll affect how much you leave behind, and should be reflected in your will.
  • Starting a business. Similarly, as part of any business succession plan, you should think about who to leave the business to, and how you’d like this to happen.
  • Death in the family. Someone passing away isn’t just a harsh reminder, but it could also change who you’ll leave your estate to.

Deciding when to write your will is a personal decision. Only you know when the time is right. You’ll regularly come across sombre reminders of how unpredictable life can be. 

It’s wise to be proactive when you’re young, even if you feel like you don’t have many assets to leave behind. You might have savings, digital assets such as a mobile phone or computer or a car, among other things. It’s also your chance to leave something to charity.

If you die unmarried or without children, your assets – no matter how large or small – will typically go to your parents if you don’t write a will. This might not be your intention. A will is a way of ensuring your property and money goes to the people you want it to.

Whatever age you write it, you should aim to revisit your will every five years to see if anything needs updating.

How to write a will

Andrew Johnson, money expert for the Money Advice Service, told the Guardian: “In theory, you could scribble your will on a piece of scrap paper, and as long as it was properly signed and witnessed it should be legally binding. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

Although you can write your own will, it’s important to get advice to make sure it’s legally valid. Your other options are to:

  • Use a solicitor
  • Use a will writing service

Both can help you meet the necessary conditions and avoid any ambiguity, as your will must meet certain criteria:

  • You must outline how your estate should be shared.

  • You must clarify the will was made when you were of sound mind (i.e. you're able to make your own decisions), and without pressure on who to leave things to.

  • It must be signed and dated by you in the presence of two adults and then signed by them in your presence. These people can’t be those who’ll inherit anything from you.

What should you include in a will?

A good will should cover four essential things:

  1. Who will benefit from your will;

  2. Who should look after your children (under 18 years old);

  3. Who your executor is – the person you’d like to carry out your wishes; 

  4. What happens if the people you want to benefit, die before you do

The more detailed and accurate your will is, the less chance there is of any confusion. However, the amount of detail required will depend on how complicated your estate is.

When you’re creating your will, there’s one final thing to remember: A will isn’t just about passing on wealth. It’s also a way of saying who’s important to you. Whether it’s intentional or not, a will carries additional weight with it. Always bear that in mind, and ensure it reflects the way you feel about your loved ones.

How to choose an executor

As part of writing your will, you’ll need to choose an executor. This is the person who carries out your wishes after you die, with responsibilities including:

  • Making sure all estates are safe and secure after the death

  • Collecting all assets and money due to the estate

  • Using the estate to pay off any outstanding taxes and debts

  • Distributing the estate, as set out in the will

It’s no easy task. While people typically choose family and friends, it isn’t always a role they’ll want to take on – especially if your estate is large or complicated. In these instances, it might be better to appoint a professional executor. The following people can be executors:

  • Family and friends

  • Solicitors

  • Accountants

There’s nothing to stop you naming a beneficiary as an executor. The only rule is the person must be aged 18 or older. You can also choose more than one executor, although only up to four can apply for the official document needed to start dealing with your estate – the Grant of Probate. Executors must act jointly, so common guidance is to name two who can share the responsibility.

Common mistakes to avoid when writing your will

There are pitfalls in the will writing process and unfortunately, mistakes do happen. So, before finalising your will, use the following checklist to make sure you avoid making these common mistakes:

  • Talk to your family
    Those close to you should know roughly what to expect from your will, as well as where to find the document. 

  • Don’t ignore any residual legacy
    Whatever’s left in your estate after you’ve named your beneficiaries and requests is called the ’residue’. If you don’t say who this should go to, you create a partial intestacy in your will and will have no control over what happens to it, which can cause conflict.

  • Avoid confusion
    It’s important to do everything possible to ensure your wishes can’t be contested. Provide details of any personal items you’re passing on and make sure there’s enough information to avoid any disputes.

  • Get it properly witnessed
    Two adults must sign and witness your will in your presence. They can’t be beneficiaries. If anything is left to a witness, they’ll lose their entitlement to it – but the rest of the will is still valid.

  • Deal with financial planning
    In 2016, £595 million was paid in ‘unnecessary’ inheritance tax, partly due to people not putting their life insurance policies into trusts. Taking care of your financial legacy is something you’ll need expert help with.

  • Don’t make unofficial changes
    All amendments to your will must meet the formal requirements – including being signed and witnessed, otherwise they may not be valid.

  • Provide for dependents
    There are rules which allow your dependants to claim on the estate if they don’t think they’ve been taken care of in your will, so make sure you’ve provided for them.

  • Consider what happens if a beneficiary dies before you
    It’s possible that someone you wish to benefit from your estate might die before you do. You should account for this in your will, and outline who their share should then go to.

Making a statutory will on someone else’s behalf

Sometimes, a situation arises that means you’ll need to make or change a will on the behalf of someone who can’t do it themselves. According to Gov.uk, this is necessary if the person can’t understand the following:

  1. What making or changing a will means

  2. How much money they have or what property they own

  3. How making or changing a will might affect the people they know (either those mentioned in the will or those left out)

For example, this might be someone who has had a serious brain injury or illness, or has dementia. To apply and write a will on their behalf, you must:

  • Apply to the Court of Protection (you can do this here)

  • Fill in and return the necessary forms, including details of the will

  • Tell other people you’ve applied, primarily those you’ve named in your application

  • Attend a hearing (if the Court of Protection decides to have one)

  • Sign the will and have it witnessed

  • Send the will to the Court of Protection, where it will be ‘sealed’

It costs £371 to apply for a statutory will. If the court decides to hold a hearing, there’ll be an additional charge of £494, on top of any potential solicitor or counsel fees.

Leaving your legacy behind

Most people will want to leave as much as possible to their loved ones. It’s natural. As such, minimising the tax bill and associated costs is part and parcel of writing a will.

How much does a will cost?

The cost of a will depends on whether you do it yourself, go to a solicitor, or use an online service. You can buy a simple template to fill in yourself from as little as £10, but it could cost you hundreds to discuss the details with a professional. 

If you’re interested in setting up a trust, you can expect to pay at least £500. A solicitor will charge roughly £100 to £200, or £150 to £300 for couples.

It’s a good idea to check with a few solicitors to find out how much they charge. Shopping around could help you find a better deal. You might also have access to legal advice through your insurance policy or a trade union, if you’re a member of one.

You could also wait until November when, every year, some solicitors write a basic will in return for a donation to Will Aid. The charity suggests a minimum donation of £95 for a basic single will or £150 for a pair of identical wills for a couple.

Should you write a will yourself or use a solicitor?

You can write a will yourself, although it’s recommended to get it checked over by a solicitor. They’ll ensure it has the effect you want, minimising the risk of any misunderstandings. 

Ambiguity or errors in a will can cause problems after your death. Sorting these out can result in considerable legal costs, all of which will come out of your estate and reduce the amount you can pass on.

Writing any legally binding document takes a certain level of knowledge, especially if your situation is complicated. If you have any doubts, it’s advisable to get professional help. Complex situations can include:

  • Sharing a property with someone who isn’t your spouse or civil partner

  • Wanting to leave money or property to a dependant who can’t care for themselves

  • The likelihood of several family members making a claim on your will (e.g., a former spouse or children from another marriage)

  • Having a business

  • Owning property overseas

  • Your permanent home is outside the UK

Whichever service you decide to use, always be cautious. Will writers don’t have to be qualified or regulated, so it’s worth considering someone who’s a member of a recognised trade body. 

The Institute of Professional Will Writers or the Society of Will Writers are good places to start your search. This will ensure they comply with codes of practice, including having indemnity insurance of at least £2m. You should also be able to check their qualifications and experience, as well as reviews online.

In addition to their qualifications, it’s worth comparing what experts offer in terms of ongoing services. For instance, will they alert you to any relevant tax or legal changes? What do they charge for making any revisions?

Talking to loved ones about your will

One way to prepare your loved ones for what to expect in your will is talking to them. This minimises the chance of any family resentment or disputes, as they’ll know what to expect. We tend to relate to money on an emotional – not rational – level. That’s why it’s best to have a plan of action.

  • Gather your ideas. At the end of the day, it's your decision. Having a clear idea of what you'd ideally like to happen puts you in a better position to start talking to family and friends.

  • Talk to people you’d like to leave assets to. Once you have a rough idea of what you want to happen, you’ve got to be open and honest with your loved ones. This includes explaining why you’re remembering them in your will.

  • Ask about personal property. You could have no idea what those close to you place sentimental value on. Give everyone a chance to say if there are any items they’d like to be left.

  • Explain any imbalance. Inheritance doesn’t have to be passed on equally, but people – especially siblings – will want to know why they’ve been given more or less.

  • Emphasise that it’s just for now. Things change. New arrivals might be born, or someone might pass away. Stress you’re happy to reassess your will regularly, or when your situation changes.

How much you reveal about your financial position is up to you. Some people believe it’s a bad idea to set expectations, but it can help with life planning. You’ll know what’s best for your family and friends.

Key stages after you pass away

After you die, some tasks will need to be carried out relatively quickly, which can be difficult and emotional for your loved ones. The executor is responsible for most things, but will probably seek support from family and friends.

The immediate actions to take care of include:

  • Getting a medical certificate signed by a doctor

  • Registering the death within five days (in the UK)

  • Applying for probate

  • Contacting a funeral director (most provide a 24-hour service)

Funeral directors aren’t essential, but a lot of people find them useful because of their expertise and experience. They’ll also help look after the body until the service.

Other important responsibilities include notifying relevant parties. The government runs a Tell Us Once service, which will report a death to most departments in one go. More advice on this is available at your local register office.

Tell Us Once will contact the following parties:

  • The housing department

  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)

  • The Pension Service

  • HM Passport Office

  • The Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)

The executor can then focus on carrying out your wishes, as outlined in your will.

FAQs

Finally, here are some commonly asked questions about wills:

Q1. What happens if you want to change your will?
You can change your will, but you must do it via the correct channels. These official alterations are called codicils, and you might have to pay for them. Codicils are signed and witnessed in the same way as your original document. There’s no limit on how many you can add, but it’s advisable to make a new will for major changes.

Q2. Where should I keep my will?
You need to keep your will safe. You can decide to store it at home, or with:

  • Your solicitor
  • Your bank
  • A company that offers the storage of wills
  • The London Probate Service

Whatever you decide, remember to tell your executor, as well as a close friend or relative so they can find it when the time comes.

Q3. Can I leave money to a charity?
Yes. Many people choose to leave behind a charitable legacy. It’s a great way to remember a cause close to your heart.

There’s a tax benefit, too. If you leave at least 10% of your net estate to charity, inheritance tax is reduced from 40% to 36%. Depending on the size of your estate, this could cut Inheritance Tax by thousands.

Bear in mind that the amount saved on tax will be offset by the donation to charity.

Click to see the Money Advice Service’s example of this.

Useful links and resources

Click the following links to find out more about:

Why you should make a will.
Making a will
Why it’s important to make a will
How to be an executor
Ten tips for a perfect will
Which's guide on how to make a will 
Money Advice Service’s guide to writing a will – your options
Click here to access the will planner from Will Aid
Click here to apply for a statutory will on someone else’s behalf

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