To prevent strife after death, put it in writing

More than half of us risk bequeathing costly confusion to our nearest and dearest by not making wills
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The Independent Online

Death is such a taboo subject that it's not surprising many of us put off making a will. But if you want to leave money or heirlooms to loved ones and don't put your wishes in writing, there's a danger they won't be carried out.

Death is such a taboo subject that it's not surprising many of us put off making a will. But if you want to leave money or heirlooms to loved ones and don't put your wishes in writing, there's a danger they won't be carried out.

Nearly three-quarters of people under the age of 45 have not bothered making wills, according to Will Aid, a charity that encourages people to do exactly that. And even as we near retirement, many of us still don't get the urge to rectify the situation: half of the over-45s don't have wills either.

Yet if you die intestate - ie, not having written a will - it can cause expensive confusion and distress for your family as they argue over what you may have wanted. It also means that someone you didn't want to receive anything could end up with a considerable proportion of your estate.

And if that isn't enough to persuade you to clear up the uncertainty now, remember that if you have no living relatives and haven't made a will, your hard-earned cash will end up swelling government coffers.

Intestacy rules dictate how your estate is divvied up in the absence of a will, explains Alex Ruffel, a solicitor at law firm Lawrence Graham: "A statutory trust is set up and what happens to your money will depend on your personal circumstances - whether you're married, have children or no relatives at all."

If a married man with two underage children dies, for example, his wife will inherit his estate in its entirety only if it is valued at less than £125,000, Ms Ruffel says. Anything above this is channelled into a statutory trust and split between her and the children, subject to certain conditions. Income generated from the wife's portion, which is usually invested, can be taken as a regular payment until her death, when the capital is then transferred to her children. The children cannot touch any income generated by their portion of their father's estate until they are 18; it is usually reinvested until then. Once they come of age, they can do as they wish with the money.

In the case of someone who is unmarried and has no children, the estate will pass to parents, if they are still alive, or, failing that, to the next of kin.

"Making a will is the only way to make sure your money goes where you want it to," stresses Ms Ruffel.

Part of the reason people fail to make wills is that they often aren't sure how to go about it. More than one in three of us is not aware we can write our own will, according to new research from the Halifax. If you are confident enough to handle things yourself, will-writing kits are available from stationers: WH Smith offers one for £9.99. But if your financial affairs are not entirely straightforward, you should ask a solicitor to draw up a will for you. This need not be expensive; it can cost as little as £50.

DIY will makers must make sure their instructions are crystal clear, warns Ms Ruffel: "If you write something that doesn't make any sense, it cannot be effected. For example, some people give away 110 per cent of their estate by mistake."

If the will is unclear, it is down to the executor to decide whether this is simply the result of a clerical error. The executor is usually a solicitor, spouse or close friend who takes charge of distributing your assets. He or she prepares a list for the Inland Revenue, detailing your assets and liabilities, so that inheritance tax (IHT) can be deducted if necessary. After that, the executor goes to court to claim a "grant of probate" to allow money to be released.

Whether or not a person dies intestate, IHT of 40 per cent must be paid on the estate if it is worth more than £263,000 (unless it passes directly to his or her spouse). Some tax planning measures may be a good idea if you have a large or complicated estate and want to minimise the IHT it incurs after your death. An accountant will be able to advise on this.

Once you have written a will, don't sit back and forget about it. If your situation changes - if you get married, divorced or have children, for example - you may want to update it.

Additional reporting by Robin Buckley

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