Law: And to you I bequeath my warped sense of humour

After Band Aid came Will Aid in 1988, the legal profession's own attempt to help people improve their financial situation after death. And there's life in it yet.
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IT IS not the most rosy start to a marriage, but the City law firm Manches & Co would like engaged couples to add "his and hers" wills to their wedding lists.

The idea of giving a will as a wedding present, admits Susan Midha, head of Manches personal- estate planning department, started as a bit of a joke - but it does have a serious message. "So many people," she says, "don't understand that when you marry, any existing will is cancelled". It also shows just how far lawyers have come in marketing the dour business of will-writing.

Ten years ago, the legal profession's own rather belated response to the pop charity phenomenon Band Aid was to start up Will Aid. It was set up by a Scottish solicitor, its purpose being to get lawyers to make wills free of charge and ask their clients to donate pounds 40 to charity. It does not sound much like rock'n'roll, but when you consider that each year pounds 2bn goes begging because people have not made a will, it is probably more important. Will Aid begins on 1 November and lasts for a month. As the actor Richard Wilson, star of One Foot in the Grave and one of this year's Will Aid celebrity sponsors, puts it: "Do you really want the Government to make a lot of money after you die?"

And others in the media believe that there is entertainment to be had out of helping people trace their unclaimed millions. Later this year, Granada Television is launching Find a Fortune, which it describes as a "fantastic new programme that could unearth the missing piece of the jigsaw and reunite you with your rightful wealth".

The promoters of Will Aid have been approached by the programme's makers for help in finding suitable cases, but a spokeswoman for Will Aid said that she did not think that Find a Fortune was "a suitable vehicle" for the charity's purposes. Nevertheless, this year Will Aid has tried to lighten the image of its own campaign by emphasising the "fun" you can have when drawing up a will.

As an example, they cite the case of a 41-year-old man who left "pounds 200 to my sister-in-law on condition that she loses one stone within two months of my death".

Or another man, from Mirfield in Yorkshire, who left his compact disc collection, records and tapes to his friend, "on condition that he agrees to play Bat out of Hell (the whole CD) at least three times, and listens to it".

Other bequests have taken a more pernicious form. One woman left her daughter just pounds 1 "for all the love and kindness she has never shown me". While yet another man, from Whitstable, bequeathed his sister pounds 100 "in the hope that she will make telephone calls herself instead of asking everybody else to telephone back at their own expense".

These have all been genuine legal bequests, which can turn the onerous task of making a will into something a little more amusing.

But there are serious reasons for getting people to make wills, many of which have a great deal to do with the misconceptions about what happens to an estate when someone dies.

Where there is no will, a husband or wife will not necessarily inherit everything on the death of a spouse. Only a portion will pass to the spouse; the rest will be shared among the children. Also, the intestacy rules do not recognise "common law" spouses, so that a child could inherit the house in which the surviving partner and child are living. When the child reaches 18, he or she could sell the house to go backpacking around the world, and there would be little that the surviving parent could do about it.

Another anomaly is that couples who die in accidents are not deemed to have died at the same time. Under the intestacy rules, the younger person is deemed to have died first, so that the spouse's estate is first passed to them and then divided up according to the will.

Although Will Aid is seen as useful in raising awareness about why you should make a will, not all lawyers consider it to be the best way to pre-empt potential legal wrangles after someone's death. Susan Midha argues that some people who are given a "quickie" may not need one, because all the document is doing is repeating the intestacy rules that automatically come into force when someone dies intestate or has made an invalid will. She adds: "They may need something else that deals with nursing- home fees, or the care of disabled children. My view is that a lot of the wills to be drafted will be the simplest wills, and the clients won't realise that they could have done with some other advice."

For Will Aid, about 2,000 - mainly high-street - law firms are taking part in the scheme. One concern raised is that the knowledge that every pounds 40 (pounds 60 for a couple) goes to charity must be a temptation for solicitors to churn them out. In 1996, the last time that Will Aid was held, one firm prepared 100 wills. The record is held by one law firm, which raised nearly pounds 14,000 for charities by providing about 350 wills in one month.

The Law Society has also been running its own annual Make a Will week, but this has been postponed until next year to avoid the potential confusion with Will Aid. Ed Nally, a founding member of the Law Society's probate section, says that he hopes that firms will not churn out wills without giving them proper attention. "If they are, then they are storing up potential negligence claims without, ironically, having charged for this service in the first place."

But Will Aid's campaign manager, Ken Hulme, says that none of the wills has caused problems. "The charities get everything and the client gets a professionally drawn-up will. And if anything goes wrong, there is a comeback (under the solicitors' insurance and compensation schemes)."

He adds that most clients are satisfied customers, and perhaps none more so than the man from Kenilworth who made out a bequest to his solicitor: "To Nicholas, two bottles of Scotch whisky and my apologies for having been his client."

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