Where there's a will, there is a way

We don't like to think about dying but should not forget the fight for life, says Sharon Kingman
MAKING a will is something that many people put off doing until it's too late. And if it's too late for them to say where they want their money to go, it's too late for charities such as Marie Curie Cancer Care to benefit from their generosity.

To encourage people to make their wills - and remember Marie Curie Cancer Care when doing so - the charity is launching a video made by Hat Trick Productions, the makers of Channel 4's Drop the Dead Donkey series. In the 10-minute video, the actor Stephen Tompkinson (who plays Damien in Drop the Dead Donkey) appears as an angel, while Jimmy Mulville plays the hapless character who hasn't made a will by the time his number is up.

The comedian Roy Hudd also makes an appearance, observing that no one likes to think about "the D-word" - but that unless people make wills they have no say in what happens to their property. Making a will is not that difficult, Mr Hudd observes: "The courts have upheld wills written on Christmas cards, the rungs of stepladders and even one written by a housewife in a recipe book." Her instructions for preparing a chili sauce ended with the words "Measure tomatoes when peeled. In case I die before my husband, I leave everything to him."

There are endless possibilities for fun and mischief when making your will, Mr Hudd says. For example, in 1987 one person left £400,000 between 15 relatives - provided that they passed eight O-levels or qualified as airline pilots within two years of his death (a difficult task, as most of them were in their seventies).

A man called Edward Horley instructed his solicitors to buy a lemon and send one half to the Income Tax Inspectorate and the other to the Collector of Taxes, each with the same message: "Now squeeze this!"

And a retired RAF Group Captain left a bequest to his old school, on condition that they spell his name correctly in the sports pavilion team list of the rugger First XV for 1916.

But the underlying message is a serious one. Although people can buy do-it-yourself forms for making a will, Mr Hudd recommends seeking the advice of a solicitor. People who are concerned about the cost should obtain a quote first.

Mr Hudd points out that gifts to charity are exempt from Inheritance Tax. A donation to Marie Curie Cancer Care, he says, will go towards the support of patients and research into the causes and treatment of cancer: "Your legacy could help to reduce the risk of cancer for future generations."

Legacies are certainly an important source of income for Marie Curie Cancer Care. This year, the charity will obtain about £11m of income from more than 800 legacies, in amounts ranging from £50 to more than £1m.

Ken Walker, head of appeals at Marie Curie Cancer Care, says legacies form the one area in which donations have grown over the past few years and are forecast to grow in future. Part of the reason for this, he says, is the inflation in house prices that took place during the 1970s and 1980s.

There are two ways in which people can leave money to charity in their wills. One is to specify a cash gift - although as its value will decrease over time with inflation, the amount should be regularly reviewed. The other is known as a residuary gift, in which supporters can opt to leave all or a part of the residue of their estate to the charity.

The average value of a cash legacy to Marie Curie Cancer Care, Mr Walker says, is £1,000 to £2,000, while that of a residuary gift is more than £20,000. Sometimes the unexpected happens, he adds: "In one recent case, a woman had left a very simple will on two sheets of paper, specifying cash sums to her nephews, nieces and other relatives, with the residue to us. We were surprised to be notified that she had £3.7m in shares, many of them in a well-known pharmaceutical company.

"That weekend, the pharmaceutical company got permission to market one of its drugs in the United States - and by the time we got back to work on Monday morning, the bequest was worth more than £4m."

Two-thirds of the legacies that come to Marie Curie Cancer Care are from people who have supported the charity in the past following direct mail appeals. Mr Walker says: "We are there to make friends with them over a long period of time. If they are satisfied with what we do, the regular givers may sign deeds of covenant, which give a higher level of commitment. Ultimately, some of those 500,000 people on our direct mailing list will think about leaving something to Marie Curie Cancer Care in their wills." Most of the legacies the charity is receiving now have come from people who began to donate money to it about 15 years ago.

Mr Walker says: "The income from legacies is very important to us. We take every opportunity to remind people about this. Without our legacy income, we would only be able to sustain two-thirds of the services we currently provide."

Making a will is not something that is easy to discuss with strangers, Mr Walker admits. "This is why the offer of help from Hat Trick Productions was so valuable. We thought humour would be a good way of introducing the subject of legacies and our own mortality - and that the video would make it easier for our local representatives to bring the subject up when they address groups of volunteers."