What is a will?
A will is a legal document you create that sets out instructions for who will inherit your estate and what should happen after you die.
It includes what sort of funeral you would like, how you would like your possessions to be distributed, as well as other wishes, like who should bring up your children, if you have them.
Sometimes known as your last will and testament, it's a legally-binding document - but if you don't prepare it properly, it may not be valid.
You are free to write your will yourself, but if you have a complicated estate, or simply want help, you can enlist the support of a solicitor or expert will-writer.
As many as 60% of people don't have wills, by some estimates. If you die without one, your estate will be distributed according to strict rules, meaning the people you care about may lose out.
- Are you making a will? If you want support, you can make your will and have it reviewed by Which? Wills
Top reasons to make a will
Here, we look at some of the top reasons for making a will, and how dying without one could affect your loved ones.
1. Make a will to name your children's guardian
When writing a will, you don't just decide how your estate is divided up. You also have a say as to who should look after your dependents. If they're under 18, you can also appoint their legal guardians.
If you don't, the decision could be left to the family courts, who may choose a person you wouldn't agree with.
You may have named friends or family members to be your children's godparents, but this isn't legally-binding.
- Find out more: will writing for new parents
2. Ensure your children are provided for financially
As well as saying who will raise your children, you can make plans to provide for their future financially. This might include putting aside money for their education, making sure they receive a set amount each year for clothing or hobbies, or establishing a nest egg to buy a home.
You may wish to consider setting up a trust to provide for your children, as this gives you an element of control over when your children receive the money, and what it gets used for.
There are two ways to set up a trust: you can either establish it while you are still alive, or leave instructions for it to be established when you pass away. See our guide to will trusts to learn more about your options, and how different types of trust work and what they might cost.
3. Provide for your dependents, including step-children
Your step-children may be a big part of your life, or even be your only children, but the law states that only spouses or blood relatives can automatically inherit if there is no will.
If you want to provide for your step-children, you'll need to write a will that includes them. The same goes for foster children, or any other dependents who may rely on you for support.
4. Protect your partner if you're unmarried
Unmarried partners aren't entitled to anything from your estate unless specifically stated in your will - no matter how long you've been together.
Writing a will ensures your partner will receive their fair share of your estate.
5. Safeguard your family home
If the family home is in your name, your unmarried partner and step-children aren't automatically in line to inherit it if you die without a will - meaning they may lose their home.
You can leave them a share of the property in your will, or a right to reside in the property.
6. Head off family disputes
Dividing up an estate can sadly sometimes lead to squabbles and arguments among your survivors if there is no will or your wishes aren't made clear.
Contested wills can be damaging to relationships among your family, and can also be expensive if decisions about your estate are legally contested.
A well-prepared will can help avoid these arguments, and avoid making your passing even more stressful for your survivors.
7. Avoid paying more inheritance tax than you need to
The amount of inheritance tax that will be charged from your estate depends on how much you have, and also who you leave it to.
Anything left to your spouse or civil partner will be automatically exempt from inheritance tax. Leaving property to your children and grandchildren is also likely to generate a lower inheritance tax bill than leaving it to others.
Find out more: Inheritance tax: thresholds, rates and who pays
8. Create a legal will if you're recently married
When you marry, your existing will automatically becomes invalid in England and Wales. According to the rules of intestacy, this means your estate could end up split between your new partner and children from a previous marriage, potentially causing arguments.
In Scotland, on the other hand, prior wills are not automatically invalidated by marriage - so if you die, your new spouse may not inherit anything if your old will does not include them.
And getting divorced doesn't override your will, meaning your ex-partner may still be in line to inherit from your estate.
As such, it makes sense to regularly review your will so it still reflects your situation, particularly after a marriage or separation.
9. Decide who you would like to settle your affairs
Within your will, you can name an executor, or multiple executors, who will be in charge of carrying out your final wishes.
Choosing your executor in advance allows you to select the best person for the task. It also gives the executor prior warning so they can prepare themselves.
To learn more about the responsibilities of being an executor, have a look at our guide to probate.
10. Say who you want to look after your pets
If you have dogs, cats, or any other pets, they may also need to be looked after if you pass away.
A handful of dogs have inherited fortunes, such as German Shepherd Gunther IV, who received a nine-figure sum from his deceased owner in 1992. But it's more common to choose someone to look after them, and put some money aside to feed them and look after their health.
11. Protect your digital assets
Nowadays, your assets won't just include money in the bank and physical goods. Digital accounts and online purchases, such as music, photographs, or websites, also form part of your possessions and can disappear into the void if you don't account for them in your will.
Things like emails and social media accounts also form part of your legacy - do you want the information destroyed, protected, and do you need to make passwords available to your executor?
You can find more details on this in our guide to what to put in your will.
12. Support a charity
If you support a charity, you may wish to leave something for it when you pass away.
As well as supporting a good cause, you could potentially reduce the amount of inheritance tax paid by your family if you leave more than 10% of your assets to a good cause. We explain how this works in our guide on what to put in your will, and you'll find more information on how charitable bequests affect the tax you pay in our inheritance tax guide.
When should you make a new will?
As you move through life your circumstances change, as do the potential risks and complications when you pass away.
You should consider making a new will:
- when you have an unmarried partner who should inherit from your estate.
- when you get married, and your old will is invalidated (in England and Wales) or doesn't include your new spouse (in Scotland).
- When you have a child so that you can appoint a guardian.
- When you buy a property or receive a large windfall.
- If you get divorced, as your previous will won't automatically be invalidated.
- When you want to make provisions for step-children, foster children or dependents.
- If your spouse passes away, and your previous will left the estate to them.
What happens if you die without a will?
If you die without a will, your estate will be divided up in line with the rules of intestacy. This means you will have little control over who receives your estate.
You can find out more this in our in our guide to intestacy rules.
Why parents need a will
It might be the last thing on your mind as you adapt to your busy new life as a parent, but making a will is really important when you have children.
By writing a will, you can appoint guardians for your children if they're under 18 when you die. You can find out more in our guide to will writing for parents.
Make sure your will is official
A will that is not properly signed and witnessed is invalid.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, two witnesses are required. Both witnesses need to be in the same room with you when you sign the will.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you'll need to be 18 to create a will. A witness does not need any special qualification or public standing, but is merely witnessing your signature.
However, they must not have any beneficial interest in the will as this could make the will invalid. This means they cannot receive any gifts from the will or be named as beneficiaries.
In Scotland, normally one witness is sufficient, but in limited circumstances, even a will that is not witnessed may still be valid. A will can be drafted by anyone aged 12 or older.
If you're not sure whether your will is valid, check with a solicitor practicing under the relevant country's law. You can also find out more in our guide on how to make a will.
Are you making a will?
Find out more - useful contacts
Law Society of Northern Ireland 028 9023 1614
Law Society of Scotland 0131 226 7411
The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners 020 7340 0500
Society of Will Writers 01522 687 888
Institute of Professional Willwriters 08456 442 042
Age UK (formally Age Concern) 020 8765 7527
Remember a Charity 020 7840 1030