Why you must make a will

One in three people dies without a will. But for most people, a properly drawn up saves those you leave behind an awful lot of trouble and money. So it's only polite to have one. Ruth Jackson explains how to go about making a will.

According to the Law Society, a third of us die intestate (without a will). Meanwhile, half of all over-45s don't have one.

So is writing a will worth the bother?

In most cases the answer is yes, or you may risk leaving too much of your 'death estate' all your assets measured at a 'probate' value (typically the open market valuation) to the government. That's because, if you die without leaving a will, your estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. This means it will be split and handed out according to the government's rules (see below).

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These rules are complex, time consuming to implement and may result in an unnecessary inheritance tax bill.

They also preclude common wishes, such as gifts to charity or bequests to friends. If you are single, or married without children, these laws may automatically distribute your estate as you would wish anyway, making a will non-essential. Equally, a will is pointless if you own very few assets.

For everyone else, a will is important. So, how do you make one?

You can buy do-it-yourself kits from stationers or the Post Office for between £5 and £20. The danger with DIY will kits is that if you fail to fill them in fully and accurately they can easily become invalid. Getting a will written by a solicitor usually costs between £100 and £400. This is money well spent if your death estate value is likely to be high, as not only should the will be water-tight, but many solicitors will also help you with basic tax planning as part of that fee.

There are ways to cut this cost. For example, a couple can save money by getting 'mirror wills' done. Here two identical wills are drawn up that specify the same actions on death, but with a reversal of names. These usually cost less than two separate wills.

An even cheaper way of getting a will drawn up is through one of two charity services. If you are over 55 the Cancer Research UK FreeWill Service will pay the first £100 in solicitor's fees for you to draw up, or update, a will. They will also pay the first £150 towards mirror wills, so unless your estate is particularly complicated you may, in effect, be able to get one drawn up for free. A charitable bequest to Cancer Research UK in your will would obviously be a nice touch.

Another option is WillAid (Willaid.org.uk).This is a charity scheme that operates in November. You can have a basic will drawn up by a solicitor free of charge in return for a charitable donation. Their suggested donations are £90 for a single will and £135 for mirror wills. Finally, make sure someone knows where your will is kept. There's no point in spending time and money on one now if no one can find it when it's needed.

What is intestacy?

If you are single and have no children your estate will be split equally between your parents (whether they need it or not). If they are dead it is split between siblings. Next in the queue are grandparents, then aunts and uncles, and finally cousins.

If you are married without children and your estate is worth less than £450,000, then the whole lot will go to your spouse or civil partner. Anything over that amount is split equally between your parents, or siblings, or nephews/nieces (in that order) and your spouse.

Children always make life more complicated especially when it comes to tax! Should you die intestate leaving behind a spouse and children, your spouse would get £250,000. Half of whatever is left is split equally among your children when they reach 18. Your spouse would get the income or interest from the remainder for the rest of their life with the capital being split amongst your children upon the second spouse's death. If a single person leaves behind children, they go to the front of the queue described earlier.

Bear in mind that if you are not married or in a civil partnership this is not the same as a 'common law spouse' then your partner will get nothing if you die intestate. Instead, your estate is split between any children you have. If you have none then the death estate assets flow down a list of people, depending on who is alive.

Once again the law starts with your parents. If they are dead an equal share goes to your surviving brothers and sisters. Next come half-siblings, then grandparents, then aunts or uncles, then half-blood aunts or uncles. If the statutory list has been exhausted every bean you leave behind goes to the Crown.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings accounts and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance.

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping, among many other titles both online and offline.