The dying game: it's time Britons went good will hunting

Many of us run the risk of losing control of our legacies. Can a special month for cheap wills make a difference?
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The Independent Online

Ever wanted to broach the subject of will-writing with a partner or family member but worried that you might appear to be rubbing your hands darkly? Well, now is the time to be bold.

Next month, a promotional campaign kicks off for Will Aid 2006, an event that takes place in November every other year.

Some 16,000 participating solicitors up and down the country (see the website below) have agreed to write a basic will for "free". In return, customers will offer a donation to one of nine charities working in partnership with the campaign, including the British Red Cross and Help the Aged.

The suggested donation is £75 for a single will, £110 for a pair of "mirror" wills and £40 for any amendment to an existing will - about half the price you would normally pay.

Although Will Aid is making steady progress, there is a long way to go. In 2004, it enticed 7,000 people to make a will - up from 5,500 in 2002.

The Law Society, the legal industry's professional body, says only 41 per cent of adult Britons have an up-to-date will. And without this, "those we love may not only have to cope with grief but the emotional and financial stress of sorting out our affairs," says Will Aid spokesperson Sue Davison.

If you don't draw up a will at all and die intestate, the state will dictate how your assets will be divided. Currently, this means that the first £125,000 of your net estate will go to a surviving spouse. Of the remainder, half will be distributed equally among the children, providing they are over 18. The other half will be held in trust until the surviving spouse dies, when it will also go to the children.

But if the deceased has no surviving kin, the entire estate will go to the state.

Although getting a will written is a sensible step, the industry is in some turmoil. At the moment, there is no regulation in terms of service or cost and so anyone can set up as a will writer - a situation that the Law Society is calling on the Government to change. If the service is performed by a firm that then ends up making serious mistakes with the document, you run the risk of receiving no compensation.

Even solicitors do not have to study will-writing as part of their legal exams. They are, however, regulated by the Law Society, which may provide some recompense for consumers in the event of a problem.

To counter concerns, a volun- tary regulatory body has been set up, the Institute of Professional Willwriters (IPW). Its 300 fee-paying members - only a small proportion of whom are solicitors - must pass a specific exam as well as receive further training every 12 months.

You can also write your own will, using a DIY kit from retailers such as WH Smith and Tesco. You will need the signatures of two witnesses - neither of whom can be beneficiaries of the will - and an assigned "executor" who will be responsible for distributing your assets after your death.

Be sure to choose an executor who is a close friend or family member and also younger than you.

Although, at £10 a throw, a DIY kit is cheaper than the £120 to £200 it would cost to have a will drawn up professionally, it comes with its own set of risks. "Although the document might be legally binding, it's got to achieve what it set out to do," says Paul Sharpe, chairman of the IPW. "Problems can arise from misinterpretations, miscalculations and even spelling mistakes."

Modern wills also tend to be quite complex. "In the 'good old days' when a typical family comprised of a husband, wife, two kids and a dog, wills were pretty straightforward," says Mr Sharpe. "Now a family unit can involve second marriages and children from previous relationships. More people have homes abroad and more residential properties fall into the inheritance tax bracket [IHT]. So it makes more sense than ever to use a qualified professional."

IHT, which is levied at 40 per cent on any sum above £285,000 per person, is another subject altogether when making a will.

According to recent research from the Halifax, there has been a 72 per cent increase in the number of estates paying the tax over the past five years, to 30,451. The Government's own estimates suggest a further rise by the end of the current tax year 37,000.

One way to help reduce your IHT bill is to own your property as tenants in common - rather than as joint owners - as part of a "discretionary will" trust. When one spouse dies, the value of half the home in effect passes into a trust up to the £285,000 limit - so making use of that individual's IHT allowance instead of losing it as property passes between spouses tax-free.

Upon the second death, that spouse will only have owned half the home in effect, so lowering the IHT bill for dependants.

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