A will does not always mean there is a way: Even a simple note about your estate needs a legal eye

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE talks about the importance of making a will and ensuring it is signed and witnessed correctly.

But it is just as important to get the formalities right if you decide to alter or amend a will. Otherwise you can all too easily disinherit those whom you wanted to receive your money.

Harry Ledbury of Herefordshire had always understood from his aunt that he was mentioned in her will.

She died in 1992. Her will, which had been made in 1988, contained no reference to Mr Ledbury. But after his aunt's death another piece of paper, dated August 1990 and signed by her, came to light.

Among other things, it says quite clearly that on her death Mr Ledbury is to get pounds 800.

Mr Ledbury says: 'I am an old-age pensioner and my wife and I would benefit considerably from my aunt's gift to me.

'The wording seems straightforward to me. It is a simple two sentences.'

But nothing is simple where the law is concerned. There is a big question mark over the validity of the extra document.

Until it is resolved, and that always takes time - usually, a great deal of time - Mr Ledbury will receive nothing.

Disputed wills and codicils are a costly task. David Barry, Mr Ledbury's solicitor, says: 'Probate actions are the kiss of death, as all you do is use up the money in the deceased's estate. There is no trouble at all running up a five-figure sum in costs.

'If pounds 50,000 is involved it is one thing. For pounds 800, regrettably, it is not worth it.'

You can change your will at any time. Births, deaths or family rows are the events that usually prompt a change of heart in the testator.

You must not alter or amend the original will, although you can write a supplement to it called a codicil. But as Mr Ledbury has discovered to his cost, any additional documents can be fraught with problems.

Gillian Cockburn of Cockburns solicitors in Guildford, Surrey, specialises in wills and probate. She warns: 'Codicils are potential minefields. As they amend or alter the will, it is important when the will and codicil are read together that the provisions are entirely clear.

'Drafting a codicil may be more difficult than the will. It is certainly very easy to introduce ambiguities without intending it.'

Many people forget that a valid codicil must be signed and witnessed in the same way as a will.

In theory, you can have any number of codicils. But in practice, too many codicils make the interpretation of the will a nightmare.

Codicils frequently become separated from wills and their existence may not be discovered until after the estate has been sorted out.

Miss Cockburn says: 'It may then be very difficult and also very expensive to recover any funds that have been wrongly distributed. Unless the amendments made to the will are very simple it is preferable to have a new will.

'However, because codicils are often short and may be cheaper to prepare, people may insist on a codicil rather than a new will. It could prove to be a false economy.'

You should not confuse a codicil with a letter of wishes. A codicil is intended to be legally binding. A letter of wishes merely expresses your wishes on how you would like executors to sort out your estate.

But a letter can be very useful, particularly if the executors have been given discretion under the will on how to deal with the assets.

A letter of wishes is often drawn up when there are surviving under-age children. Miss Cockburn explains: 'Then the letter will usually be addressed to the guardians and may request a particular type of schooling or religious upbringing. The letter should be kept with the will.'

Wills and codicils are best drawn up by solicitors. The cost is negligible compared to the potential financial aggravation if your home-made effort is wrong.

Finally, do tell someone where you have put your will, codicil, letter of wishes or anything else relevant to life after death.

(Photograph omitted)

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