Make your will. Before you die

A trip to the solicitor to write a will can be put off indefinitely. The consequences can be grave. By Clifford German
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Frrst it was Christmas, Easter and New Year that extended from a single day to an entire week. Then came weeks for national charities for cancer relief and blood donors. Now secular themes are seizing weeks of the year to publicise their causes, and next Monday begins National Will Week.

Making a will ranks somewhere close to fixing that dripping tap or decorating the spare room in the long list of activities that just beg to be put off. And unlike a trip to the dentist a visit to the solicitor to make a will can be put off indefinitely. Indeed 70 per cent of adults never get around to it at all.

That never used to matter much when the majority of ordinary folk lived and died without getting much above the breadline, and lived relatively uncomplicated lives, leaving enough to money for a funeral, and a house and a widow's pension if they were lucky.

But increasing personal wealth, a rising divorce rate and the workings of inheritance tax have complicated matters, while the laws governing the disposal of the assets of anyone who dies without a will have changed hardly at all.

The law provides that after debts and taxes have been paid the assets of anyone who dies without making a will have to be divided according to a set formula, which may vary slightly in Scotland. As a general rule if there are children the surviving spouse gets half the estate and the children share the other half. If there are no children but the deceased has parents or other blood relatives still living, the spouse and the relatives of the deceased will be entitled to half each.

Only if there are no children and no surviving parents does the whole estate pass automatically to the surviving husband or wife.

If, however, you are separated but not divorced, your husband or wife will be entitled to a claim on your estate just as if you had still been living together. If they remarry after your death your own children may get nothing when your former partner dies.

But the law of inheritance still does not recognise relationships other than marriage and blood. If you have been living with someone, however long, that person will get nothing when you die even if you have had children, unless you have made a will.

A proper will can save a lot of heartbreak and possible hardship, but many people still think it does not matter, or that there will be time enough to make a will later on, or that it is a complicated and time-consuming procedure. Excuses are legion and easy to find. But if you have a reasonable idea of who you want your assets to go to - cash, bank and building society accounts, stocks and shares, property and any valuables you have, like cars, jewellery or postage stamp collections - it is easy enough to draw up a list of where you would like each or all of them to go, or if you prefer them to be sold, how you would like the proceeds divided up. You can also nominate executors to administer your will and make provisions for your funeral and any special requests like organ donation.

Making a will is also a useful way of making an inventory of assets to make sure you do not unwittingly go over the inheritance tax threshold, currently pounds 154,000, and end up incurring tax at 40 per cent on the excess.

Many people simply leave everything to their spouses, but this is never wholly wise especially if both husband and wife die together. But there is no reason why you should not make a few personal bequests of favourite items to favourite godchildren, to charities and to friends and institutions as a token of appreciation. Unexpected gifts are often the most appreciated. Many people now write provisions for their pets into their wills.

Gifts to charities are exempt from inheritance tax. Otherwise, however, sharing out your estate does nothing to reduce the burden of inheritance tax unless you started giving things away well before you died. Various pressure groups urge the Chancellor each year to reduce the tax burden if assets are dispersed to more than one beneficiary.

The simplest way to turn your wishes into a legal document is to go to a solicitor. Most solicitors are willing to draw up a will for you and many now advertise their services in the local Yellow Pages. If you do not have a solicitor it is easy to find one locally who will arrange an interview to talk through your wishes and draw up a will that will make your wishes legally watertight.

When you have an idea of what you want to do and how complicated it might be, it is often wise to ask for an estimate because solicitors have no set scale of charges.

Some solicitors claim to draft a straightforward will for as little as pounds 35, but in the posher suburbs they may well want pounds 100 or more. For a fee solicitors will also keep a copy of your will, act as executors, and make sure your wishes are carried out.

The cheapest way to make a will is to buy a DIY kit from a legal stationer for a few pounds, complete with instructions on how to write the details and have your signature properly witnessed (remembering of course that witnesses cannot also be beneficiaries). But there can be no guarantee that a DIY will will stand up in court if your wishes are ambiguous.

Alternatively you could write off to a firm like Willmakers, which supplies a will guide and converts your wishes into a proper will, which is returned to you with signing instructions and a plain English summary. There is a flat fee of pounds 49.50, or pounds 79.50 for "mirror" wills for couples whose wishes are similar. For pounds 17.95 Willmakers also offers forms to create an Enduring Power of Attorney nominating someone to administer your affairs if you are no longer able to do so, and for a further pounds 9.95 a Living Will, which records your wishes on medical treatment and creates a healthcare proxy to help take future decisions.

If you want to make doubly certain that your will can be found when you die you can register its whereabouts on a central database with Central Wills Lodgement Bureau, based in Leicester and Aberdeen (0345-697824) for a fee of pounds 19.99.

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