Confront the taboo with an instant will

A new breed of DIY testaments will make it easier to plan for our mortality, says Sam Dunn. But beware of the pitfalls
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The Independent Online

If death is the word that dare not speak its name, then no one has told the company whose off-the-shelf wills are making it easier for people to plan ahead for their own mortality. Just months after their launch on Tesco's website, Lawpack's "Last Will & Testament" packages - consisting of forms and advice manuals - have achieved "bestseller" status.

If death is the word that dare not speak its name, then no one has told the company whose off-the-shelf wills are making it easier for people to plan ahead for their own mortality. Just months after their launch on Tesco's website, Lawpack's "Last Will & Testament" packages - consisting of forms and advice manuals - have achieved "bestseller" status.

And Lawpack, which sells 250,000 of its packs each year through Tesco Online and at stationers and retailers such as WH Smith, now says it is negotiating with rival supermarkets for a similar service.

Pitching a DIY will into such popular domains - a move supported by a government drive to encourage us to consider cheaper legal services - will help people overcome their natural distaste for planning for their own death. This instinct, reports the Halifax, prevents half of us from ever drawing up a will. Even the rich can recoil: Howard Hughes left no will and his $2bn estate was claimed by 400 prospective heirs.

At the other end of the wealth scale, that a will can now be bought for around £10 will appeal to many put off by the cost of professional advice. This might start at £100 for a simple estate but, depending on its size and any tax planning, could rise to £600 or above.

The focus on wills has been sharpened by the property price boom, pushing more people over the £263,000 inheritance tax (IHT) threshold, and leaving them open to a 40 per cent liability on any amount above this. Halifax calculates that some 2.4 million homeowners could now be caught in the IHT trap and estimates that the Treasury will make £2.9bn from IHT this tax year.

Yet while the emergence of DIY wills may encourage us to address these issues, it's vital to be thorough - for a badly drawn-up will can be worse than no will at all, says James Kessler QC, author of the legal textbook Drafting Trusts and Will Trusts: A Modern Approach. "It can lead to endless confusion and wrangling - which requires a great deal of professional time and fees to resolve."

Those planning to go it alone need to be aware of the pitfalls, the most common of which turn on a lack of legal understanding, says Mr Kessler.

For example, many people wrongly try to make a gift of property - half of a house to a child, say - when it is jointly owned, usually with a spouse. A home has to be legally held as "tenants in common" before it can be divided.

"If you intend to give your share away to anyone else by will, [you cannot do so] without an additional document to change the co-ownership to a tenancy in common," says Mr Kessler.

Lack of clarity is another problem: too many people mark money out for a charity without specifying its proper name, so the intended beneficiary may miss out. Imprecision can lead to bitterly contested claims, and possibly even legal actions.

Other disasters include people miscalculating their finances and promising money or assets that they simply haven't got.

Wills also need constant review as personal circumstances change - for example, because of the birth of children or divorce and remarriage. "A large amount of legal work is caused by wills that were perfectly good when [first] executed but are wholly unsuitable by the time of death," adds Mr Kessler.

In the absence of a will, intestacy rules apply to put an individual's estate into trust for division; according to your "personal family" status, money then passes to your spouse, children or other kin in that order.

The danger is that, by putting off making a will, you could die intestate and your legacy pass to an estranged family member to whom you had planned to leave nothing. And if you have no relatives, the Treasury could end up with all your cash.

Writing a will is the only way to ensure your money goes to the right family, friends or charity.

If you are confident enough to divide up your assets, there is no reason why you shouldn't at least consider a DIY will. "It will be right for you if you have a house, some savings and a couple of heirlooms," says Russell Roworth of Lawpack.

However, those with a large or complicated estate should think twice.

Opting for the DIY route could mean you miss out on a solicitor's expertise with, for example, trusts, charitable gifts, tax and business assets.

The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors, doesn't back DIY wills. Of course, the legal industry has a financial incentive not to do so, but the society warns of the dangers of a poorly drawn will.

It advises that members of the public talk to a solicitor instead, says spokeswoman Catherine O'Leary. "It costs money but, without an expert's view, you cannot be sure that you'll fill [the document] in properly."

However, as with any other financial product, it will be worth shopping around among different solicitors to check consultation prices, she adds.

Alternatively, if your estate is relatively straightforward but you don't want to do a DIY will, a will-writing service can provide help and advice for no more, usually, than £50.

Consumer group Which? says professional legal advice is advisable with any complicated estate, particularly if you have remarried and have children from a previous marriage.

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