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Where there's a will, make sure you know the way

A Will is probably the most important document you are ever likely to sign. But only one in three people have bothered to make a will and many of those are flawed or confusing, even when drawn up by solicitors.

One in four wills drawn up by a mix of solicitors, banks, insurance companies and specialist will writers was rated as poor, with some details being plain wrong, according to a new survey by the Consumers' Association (CA).

A panel of experts chosen by the CA looked at 51 wills and judged that the majority were confusing in some way. Only 12 of the wills were classed as good, meaning they were well thought out and covered all possible eventualities.

The CA survey comes as solicitors and will-writing experts launch their annual Will Week, beginning tomorrow. Will Week aims to persuade the estimated 70 per cent of the UK population who should have wills drawn up to actually do so.

Yet the CA found that no single type of will-writing professional stood out as best. Solicitors produced the most wills rated as good - nine - but more than half were only average or poor. Six out of seven wills written by banks and life insurers were average - the other one was poor. Most wills produced by specialist will writers were average or poor.

While the cost of making a will varies between pounds 23 and pounds 125, paying more is no guarantee of a better service. For less than pounds 5, one can buy a Do- It-Yourself will-making pack from a newsagent, fill in a blank form, sign it and then stuff it away in a drawer.

If your affairs are really very straightforward, it may be worthwhile, said a spokesman for the Law Society. But there is a danger in thinking that your affairs are too simple to merit professional help with your will. He added that solicitors make more money from sorting out the problems caused by inadequate home-made wills than from the charges to prepare a proper will in the first place.

And while you may want to write your own will so that you can put your wishes in simple terms, there are dangers there too. The instructions for dealing with your estate must be crystal clear and legally watertight. If there is any confusion about what you wanted, there is no chance of double-checking once you are dead.

Often the wording in a home-made will is open to at least two contrary interpretations.

There are also tax-planning issues. Or one may want to use the will to give executors and trustees greater powers than those conferred by law. And even after all those considerations, a will could turn out to be worthless if it is not signed and witnessed.

Both the Law Society and the CA recommend that UK residents living in or owning a property abroad, business owners, Lloyds Names, or someone whose estate may be liable to Inheritance Tax (the current threshold is pounds 200,000) should consult a lawyer.

The same applies if a person's family situation is complicated, through separation or divorce, for example.

The Law Society can provide names of three local firms which offer will- writing services. Some will do interviews at a client's home. Competition is rife so consumers can shop around.

Some banks, building societies and life-insurance companies offer will- writing services. Or one can use a specialist firm of will-writers.

Simon Harris of the Will Writers' Association, which has more than 1,000 members, said a will costs about pounds 50 for an individual, including a home visit. Couples should expect to pay around pounds 75. For an extra pounds 20 one can store a will with the Association for safekeeping - together with other documents, such as insurance policies.

The Royal National Institution for the Blind offers a range of free pamphlets and guides on how to make a will, which answer some of the most commonly- asked questions.

Whoever writes the will, it is vital to check all the details carefully. If something is not clear, make sure it is fully explained and understood. A will that does not meet a person's wishes could cause huge complications, during a time of great emotional stress, at a later date.

Law Society: 0171-242 1222. Will Writers' Association: 01745-584 414. Willmaker: 0171-436 8445. RNIB Wills & Legacy Advice Service: 0171 388 1266. NatWest Bank guide: 'How To Make a Will', free by calling 0800 722733. Guide books on making a will are available from all good bookshops.