Where there isn't a will

Paying large amounts to a solicitor does not ensure that your will has been drawn up to cover all eventualities. And there's no chance of double-checking once you're dead. Ian Hunter on making your last wishes clear
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The Independent Online
Making a will sounds like a morbid task, but the grief of family and friends could turn into years of distressing legal wrangling if you die intestate. It need not cost a lot of money; you can even do it yourself. In fact, a recent survey by the Consumers' Association found that while the cost of making a will varies from pounds 23 to pounds 125, paying more is no guarantee of a better service.

For less than pounds 5, you can buy a DIY will-making pack from a newsagent, fill in a form, sign it and have it witnessed, then stuff it away in a drawer, where your relatives or executor can find it. "If your affairs are really straightforward, it may be worthwhile," says a spokesman for the Law Society. But he stresses that solicitors make more money from sorting out problems caused by inadequate, home-made wills than from preparing a proper will in the first place.

There is a danger in thinking that your affairs are too simple to merit professional help, says the Law Society. It gives as an example the case of someone who wants to leave all their assets to a surviving partner and then to their children. If that is all that the will stipulates, and the family are killed in an accident, the estate would be divided as though no will had been made. The instructions for dealing with your estate must be crystal clear and legally watertight; there is no chance of double- checking once you are dead.

Tax-planning issues may also need to be taken into account. Or you may want to use your will to give your executors and trustees greater powers than those conferred by law. Even so, your will could turn out to be worthless if you do not have it signed and witnessed in a very specific way.

The Law Society and the Consumers' Association say you should not try to write your own will if you live or own property abroad, own a business, or are involved in a Lloyds underwriting syndicate; or if your estate may be liable to inheritance tax (the threshold is currently pounds 200,000), or your family situation is complicated, by separation or divorce, for example.

Solicitors and some banks, building societies and life insurance companies offer will-writing services. Or you can use a specialist firm. Simon Harris of the Will Writers' Association, which has more than 1,000 members, says that for about pounds 50 a will-writer will visit your home and draw up a will for you. "It is a fixed price service," he says. Couples should expect to pay about pounds 75. For an extra pounds 20 the association will store the will, with any other documents.

In a recent survey, the Consumers' Association found that no one type of will-writing professional stood out as best. Of 51 wills drawn up by solicitors, banks, insurance companies and specialist will-writers, one in four was rated as poor, with some details plain wrong. Only 12 wills were judged to be well thought out, to cover all eventualities. The majority - 24 wills - were "average", which means that they could be confusing in some way.

"Our findings were worrying," says the Consumers' Association. "Your will documents your final wishes, and average is simply not good enough. Wills are complex legal documents; professionals should not rely on their customers to check and correct the details" n

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