What can you leave in your will?
Within your will, you can explain who should inherit your assets after you die, name a guardian for your children, leave instructions for your funeral and set up trusts to provide for your family financially.
You can also name an executor (or several executors) who will administer the estate and carry out your last wishes.
A will is a legally-binding document, but it must meet a certain criteria in order to be valid and enforceable by a court.
We explain what your will needs to include to be valid and what instructions you can leave for your estate or family.
- Are you making a will? Make your will and get it reviewed by Which? Wills, all for a fair price – visit Which? Wills to find out more.
Is your will valid?
There aren't any rules on the structure of your will, and in theory you could write it on any piece of paper.
However, for it to be valid in England and Wales, it needs to be witnessed and signed by two independent adults and dated. In Scotland, you'll need it to be signed and dated by one witness.
These witnesses cannot inherit anything from your will or benefit from your will in any way (although they can act as executors).
Your will should also name your executors, who are authorised to gather in your assets and divide them up according to your instructions - a process known as probate. The executor can be a beneficiary from your will (provided they are not also a witness).
You can find out more in our guide on how to make a will.
Bequests and assets in your will
One of the most important aspects of your will is deciding how your assets will be distributed among your family, friends or charities.
When leaving assets in your will, you can specify which person or organisation should receive which asset (known as specific legacies or bequests). Specific legacies can include the obvious, such as a property, or family heirlooms, but could be more abstract too - for example, a sentimental keepsake or the contents of a bank account.
You can also leave people a share of the total value of your remaining estate - known as the 'residue' - or whatever remains from certain assets.
In some cases, you might opt for a combination of the two. For example, if you wanted to split a bank account between two people, you might specify that the first person gets £20,000, while the second inherits anything left.
It's important to understand that your residual legacy is all that remains after specific legacies have been accounted for, but also after any debts have been settled, including your inheritance tax bill. It's quite possible that your specific legacies and the inheritance tax bill will cover more than your whole estate, in which case anyone named as receiving your residual estate will receive nothing.
If you bequeath someone money, you can specify whether they are made from your residual estate, as or as a specific legacy.
Leaving property in your will
Your home is generally the largest asset you'll leave behind. Whether it can be passed on in your will depends on how you own it.
If you own the home outright, you can name a new owner in your will, and the title will pass to that person when you die.
It's more complex if you own the property with someone else. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, property can held in two ways:
- If your property is held in a joint tenancy, your half of the property will pass to the surviving joint tenant automatically.
- If your property is held in a tenancy in common, you can leave your share of property to someone else in your will. They will then become a tenant in common with the other owner of your property.
In Scotland, this terminology isn't used. Instead, the ownership structure is written on the title deed, and owners can include a survivorship clause to say what happens when one person passes away.
If there is an outstanding mortgage on your property, your heirs will need to make new arrangements with the mortgage lender to either repay the loan or remortgage the home.
You can give someone a 'right of residence' in your property, which will allow them to live there for a specified time - for example, until they die, move into care, or are no longer raising your children - while passing the ownership to someone else.
Keep in mind that your spouse won't pay inheritance tax on any assets that they inherit and your estate may benefit from a lower inheritance tax bill if you leave your home to a direct descendant, such as a child or grandchild. You can find out more in our guide to inheritance tax on property.
Overseas property or assets
If you own property or assets overseas, it's important to seek legal advice, ideally from someone with expertise in the local jurisdiction. That's because some countries have very different rules to the UK, so your will may not automatically be valid in those places.
In France, for example, it's not possible to disinherit your children. If your will isn't deemed valid in the country where you own foreign property, it's likely that these assets will be distributed according to local intestacy rules.
Tax on legacies
Normally, any inheritance tax due on items you bequeath will be taken from your residual estate, but it's possible for you to specify otherwise.
If you leave someone a property, for example, it's possible to stipulate that they will be responsible for paying any inheritance tax due.
- Find out more: Inheritance tax: thresholds, rates and who pays
Providing for children in your will
If you care for children under 18, your will should set out who will become their guardian if both parents die. If you don't, the family courts will be left to decide who should raise your children. It's worth speaking to the guardians in advance to confirm that they would be willing to take in your children.
Within your will, you can also specify where the money will come from to look after your children. This is usually provided for with trusts.
If children inherit money or property, it's held in trust until they turn 18 (or until they get married, if earlier). You can set out instructions for how the trust is to be managed. If you don't specify, the trust will be dealt with according to the 'trustee laws', which let the executors deal with the fund.
If you have adult children, the default position is that they will receive any inheritance outright at 18. Some people don't wish their children to inherit large amounts of money at such a young age. If so, you might want to consider establishing a trust that requires your children to reach a specific age or a milestone, such as stepping onto the property ladder, before the money is released.
Aside from your children, consider any other dependents you might have - such as elderly parents or disabled adults living in your home - and make financial arrangements for their care as well.
- Find out more: Will writing for new parents
Supporting charities in your will
Many people choose to leave some of their estate to charity when they pass away.
Aside from supporting a cause you believe in, there can be tax advantages to giving your money away. If you leave more than 10% of your estate to charity, then the inheritance tax rate on your remaining estate will fall from 40% to 36%.
The charity must be UK registered to qualify. The same tax break applies if you leave money to a university, political party or community sports club.
- Find out more: inheritance tax planning and gifting
Digital assets and online accounts
Nowadays, your estate will probably not just include physical and financial assets, like money in the bank. Digital assets, such as photographs, music and films you've bought online may also form part of your possessions. You may wish to specify who owns these once you pass on.
If you have social media accounts, you can also request specific people to delete or take these over on your behalf.
It can be a good idea to leave passwords and login details to the executor to manage your digital assets. However, it's important not to include passwords in the will itself, as that document will become a matter of public record, potentially meaning anyone can access it. As a solution, login details should be stored safely in a separate document, with instructions in your will on how to find it.
Caring for pets
Many people care for their pets like members of their family. Within your will, you can leave the care of your pets to a specific person, although it's worth checking with them beforehand to ensure they'd be willing to take on the responsibility.
If you have specific instructions for caring for your pet, you can also outline these.
In some cases, people have left a fortune to their pets, which is then held on trust, as in the case of multi-millionaire German Shepherd Gunther IV. More commonly, you could name a caretaker and put aside a sum to be used for looking after that animal.
Instructions for your funeral
People often opt to include a paragraph in their will specifying their wishes for their funeral and the disposal of their body - for example, whether you'd like to be buried or cremated, where your remains should be buried or scattered, and your views on organ donation.
These instructions aren't legally-binding, as your executors have decision-making power over your funeral and remains. But last wishes will usually be followed, and can spare your loved ones difficult decisions at a distressing time.
That said, keep in mind that your will might not be read until your funeral plans are already in place, so it may be wise to share your wishes with a trusted loved one - or even the executor - beforehand.