Where there's a will there's a way to avoid family feuds

Would your nearest and dearest inherit all should you die? The Law Society recommends making sure during Make a Will Week. By Teresa Hunter
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Indy Lifestyle Online
FAMILY FEUDS may overshadow our lives, but they are nothing to the catfights which often break-out after we've gone. Even the rich and famous, who can afford the best legal advice, are not immune from the squabbles which deaths can trigger.

Paula Yates is currently suing Michael Hutchence's pounds 10m estate for a fairer share for their daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. Shares in Dundee United were recently at the centre of a court-room battle over the affairs of former chairman George Fox.

Anyone who has read Bleak House knows, when it comes to contesting a will only one side wins: the one the lawyers are playing on. An estate, no matter how large, soon disappears once legal fees begin to chip away at it.

To underline the importance of making and updating a will, the Law Society had earmarked this week as Make a Will Week. Solicitors up and down the country have a range of special promotions planned to encourage people to sort out their affairs. Some are offering a cut-price service, while others will promise to donate part of their fee to charity.

A Law Society spokesman says: "We are not trying to encourage people to make wills because it means more fees for us. Solicitors make far more money from sorting out flawed or non-existent wills, than they do from drawing them up. We just want to raise people's awareness of the problems they could be storing up for their families in the future."

Many people underestimate how the lack of a will can leave their nearest and dearest in the lurch. They wrongly presume that if they die their spouse will get everything, but that is not so. Or rather it is, provided your wealth is less than pounds 125,000. Above that, the children share the balance, although your spouse retains an interest during his or her lifetime. Nevertheless, he or she could lose control of their homes.

If you don't have children your spouse gets the first pounds 200,000, and your parents get half the rest. If your parents are dead, your brothers and sisters inherit.

But if you and your partner are not married or in a second marriage with children or step-children, failing to make a will is an act gross irresponsibility.

Alan Benstock, a solicitor with the Lister Croft Partnership, says: "The biggest problems we face today are sorting out the affairs of people who have been involved in more than one marriage, or who have had more than one partner. It can take a great deal of time and the difficulties can be intractable."

Yet one third of people who should have made a will have not done so, even though most solicitors charge as little as pounds 50 to pounds 80 for putting simple affairs in order.

It is possible to write your own will by buying a pre-prepared form from W H Smith, or another reputable stationers, which you fill in, sign and get witnessed. However the Consumers' Association is critical of these forms and recommends drawing up your own document in three parts. The first section should appoint executors, the second distributes your wealth and the third gives the executors the powers they need to perform their duties.

A Consumers' Association spokesman says: "The one thing worse than not making a will is making a mess of a will." The three most common errors on DIY wills are failing to get it properly witnessed and not clearly identifying either the item in question or the person it is supposed to go to. The most famous case this century involved a man whose will said he wished to leave everything to "mother", which seems quite clear. Except that he always called his wife "mother".

As solicitor's fees for wills are relatively modest, it may be worth getting a few quotes from local firms and leaving it to them; although even here a word of warning. To keep costs down, many firms use pre-prepared forms and pseudo-clerical staff to draw them up. Check the qualifications of the person writing your will, and make sure you are comfortable with the questionnaire.

There are also some postal will-writing services around, but again these may not employ qualified staff.

Whoever draws up the document, you will need to appoint an executor who has a legal duty to carry out your wishes, and to pay any taxes or costs for administering it. They can be family, friends, a solicitor, financial adviser or any other professional.

Finally, many charities, such as Age Concern, also offer a will-writing service in the hope of being included in your bequests.

For more information: The Law Society has a website with detailed information on all areas of wills at www.make-a-will.org.uk

Wills & Probate: Which? Consumer Guides cost 10.99: Putting Your Affairs in Order: Age Concern free guide available 0181 679 8000

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