More than half of us have not made a will, which could potentially leave loved ones with financial problems. Anyone who dies without a will leaves the sorting out of their assets to the state, under what are known as intestacy rules.
While the rules are being improved slightly from next month, they still remain complicated and can mean months of delays before someone's estate is sorted out, causing potential hardship for those left behind.
More crucially, without a valid will there's little chance of your assets being handed over in the way you might like, particularly if you would like to leave a little to a good cause.
Next week has been designated "remember a charity in your will week", to put the focus squarely on the subject.
It's an issue that is close to the heart of Chris Shagouri. The 71-year-old from Yorkshire was diagnosed with ovarian cancer seven years ago and has been told that she may have just months to live.
"I am now in palliative care and have just decided to enjoy each day," she says. "I don't have a lot of energy but I have good pain control and I'm not suffering too much. I'm just trying to enjoy life."
Crucial to her peace of mind was ensuring that money issues were sorted out. And that meant getting a professional will written so that her family – including two children and three grandchildren – could benefit the way she wanted from a share portfolio Chris herself had been left.
In fact, her and her husband first had a will written when the couple were in their forties. "A friend of ours died young, which really pulled us up," she recalls. "When I was diagnosed I reviewed my will and reviewed it again when I went into palliative care."
But this time it wasn't just about the money. "As well as making sure that my wishes would be met, I needed to ensure that my husband and children had lasting power of attorney if I needed to go into care."
It's a difficult subject to discuss, but Chris says: "I'm quite a practical and positive person, so I just get on with it."
She was also adamant she wanted to leave about 5 per cent of her estate to a charity that she says really helped her deal with her illness. Target Ovarian Cancer was only set up a few years ago to help women diagnosed live their lives to the full, wherever they are in the UK.
"Some 7,500 women are diagnosed each year and Target was a great support to me, so I wanted to do something for the charity in return," says Chris. "It raises awareness and funds research into new treatment, so leaving them a decent donation feels like a really positive thing for me."
What to do if you don't have a will
If you haven't yet written a will, you're not alone. Some 28.7 million British adults haven't, according to research published this week.
"It is worrying to see how few have a will in place, leaving no guarantee that their wishes will be executed as they intended and potentially putting them and their family in a vulnerable position," warned Karen Barrett, chief executive of unbiased.co.uk, the organisation behind the research.
"When it comes to writing a will, procrastination rules for too many, with most believing they should wait until they are older."
While many say cost and complexity is the a reason they've not made a will, Ms Barrett says it can be done very simply with the help of a professional.
"The average cost of using a solicitor to draw up a will can be as low as £150 for singles and £200 for couple," she points out. "Although this is not an insignificant sum, the help of a professional will ensure the will is legal and valid and will also help your loved ones to deal with your estate at a difficult time."
Leaving money to charity can reap tax rewards
Leaving money to a good cause can help your cash do good, but also cut your tax bill, which could leave family with less of a financial headache.
Rob Cope, of Remember A Charity, said: "Many charities simply wouldn't exist if it wasn't for legacy donations. By leaving to charity in your will, you can ensure that good causes live on and also help reduce your own inheritance tax."
Mai Brown, trust director at accountants Blick Rothenberg, points out: "Legacies to charities reduce the inheritance tax liability on your estate by 40 per cent of the value of the legacy. In addition, it's possible to reduce the overall rate of inheritance tax applying to whole of your estate by ensuring that at least 10 per cent of your net estate is donated to charities."
But you must ensure that the charity is a qualifying one, warns James Antoniou, of Co-operative Legal Services. He says that can be confirmed by asking the charity for its tax-exempt reference number.
He adds that inheritance tax rules are complicated. "It's true the rate can be reduced to 36 per cent if someone leaves 10 per cent to charity, but it's important to get the right advice."
It's also possible to include other items in your will – other than cash – to leave to charities. "It's possible to leave a specific item such as clothing or books for example," explains Mr Antoniou. "However, people should think about their reasons for leaving them to a charity.
"You need to make your wishes clear in your will and, if you are unsure whether the charity would like the items, contact the charity concerned and they will be happy to discuss this with you."
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