Writing a will: how to make sure you get it right

If you die without a will, you bequeath your relatives a big headache. Here's how to make sure that doesn't happen.

The pandemic has sparked a boom in will writing. There was a 267% rise in people making online and telephone wills with will writer Farewill last year. Yet 49% of Britons still don’t have a will, says Co-op Legal Services. A survey by the Co-op reveals widespread confusion about what happens to assets if a person dies without a will (known as dying “intestate”). This is especially important for cohabiting couples that are not married (or in a civil partnership). Under the rules of intestacy, an unmarried partner gets nothing when you die; increasingly common “blended families” also complicate planning.

Those who die without a will bequeath their relatives a headache, says James Coney in The Sunday Times. Unclear wishes can lead to “acrimony”. Consider other measures to ease the burden on grieving relatives: “Write down all your online accounts and passwords in a little book and hide it away.” Clear funeral instructions are also a great help.

To make a legally valid will in England and Wales, you must sign it in the presence of two witnesses, who then also sign. The witnesses and their married partners cannot be beneficiaries of the will. Review your will every five years or after major life changes such as a separation or moving house. To amend a will you can either add a codicil (also with two witnesses) or, for bigger changes, make a new one (you must physically destroy the old will).

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The main mistakes people make when writing a will

Common mistakes when writing a will include failing to make it legally valid, forgetting to account for everything in an estate and not factoring in the effect of marital changes or the potential death of a beneficiary, says citizensadvice.org.uk. While it is possible to make a will yourself, using a solicitor will give you peace of mind that it has been drafted properly. Establish which assets and possessions you have, and who the beneficiaries and executors will be before getting legal help. This will cut costs.

In England and Wales the witnessing can happen via videoconferencing, but this is a faff and “not without risks”, says Tom Wilson of Which. Have “the will witnessed the conventional way wherever possible”. Simple wills cost between £80 and a few hundred pounds. You can get a discount on a second “mirror will” for your partner if you both have the same wishes. More specialist wills, such as those that include trusts, cost at least £500 to £600.

Can you forego the solicitor? More than 150,000 people have used one of the numerous online will writing services over the past year, but beware, says James Daley in The Daily Telegraph. The market is unregulated, and most offer “no consumer protections if things go wrong”. “Overconfidence” leaves some unaware that situations such as being divorced, having children with more than one partner or cohabiting mean more complex drafting is typically required.

Before drafting the will, talk to your family so that you have an opportunity to make your wishes clear and plan together for the future, says moneyhelper.org.uk. Emphasise that the will is “for now” and can be amended in the future if circumstances change. Make clear that the will is not about “who deserves what”, but about achieving objectives such as providing for a partner or for the education of grandchildren. Your decisions may be partly based on whom you like or dislike – “but saying so won’t do you any favours”.