Writing a will

Making a will ensures that your money, possessions and property go to the people you want to benefit when you die.

goco author
Updated 16 September 2021  | 6 min read

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If you’re a parent of children under 18, a will gives you the opportunity to indicate who you want to be their legal guardian if anything happens to you.

In your will, you can say exactly how you want your estate to be shared out, so there are no disputes about who gets what after you’re gone.

Key points

  • Making a will allows you to be clear about who gets your assets and possessions after your death
  • A will can also identify who you want to care for your children if you die
  • If you die without a will, your loved ones - including an unmarried partner - may not be provided for
  • A will can help you avoid paying more inheritance tax than you need to

Do I need a will?

Even if you have life insurance, making a will is the sensible way to guarantee that your assets go to exactly who you want after you’ve gone.

Dying without a will means that the law decides who gets what. And that might mean your loved ones lose out.

How do I make a will?

Just follow these four steps...

Step 1. Decide how you want to write your will

Write your own will

You can choose to write a will yourself – for example by using an online template. This method might suit you if you have simple, straightforward needs such as wanting to leave everything to your spouse.

Bear in mind, though, that even the smallest of mistakes could make your will invalid, so it would be wise to get your will reviewed by a legal expert. 

It’s imperative, too, that you get your will witnessed in the right way or it won’t be legally binding. 

Employ a solicitor

If you don’t feel confident to go down the DIY route, or if your situation is more complex, you should use the services of a solicitor to draft your will. 

It’s definitely a wise option if your family situation isn’t straightforward. For example, if you live with a partner but are unmarried, have former partners, children with a former partner, or step-children you want to pass on assets to, or if you have a disabled family member you want to make provisions for.

It’s also a good idea to use a solicitor if your estate is likely to leave your heirs with an Inheritance Tax bill. 

The current tax-free inheritance tax allowance stands at £325,000. After that, inheritance tax is payable at 40%. 

A solicitor’s advice can help keep the Inheritance Tax due on your estate to a minimum.

Using a solicitor is also advisable if your estate includes a company you own, you have property or investments abroad or if you own a property with someone who is not your wife, husband or civil partner.

Employing the services of a solicitor can also provide peace of mind that your will is legally binding. 

Use a will-writing service

These services offer support to write your will and are generally cheaper than using a solicitor. You can use their service online, on the phone, or face to face in your home. 

Check that they’re regulated by The Solicitors Regulation Authority or, failing that, that they belong to an official organisation such as the Institute of Professional Willwriters or the Society of Will Writers.  

Be sure, too, that the will-writing service doesn’t appoint itself as executor by default. They will probably charge high fees for this service. 

Will-writing services are used by many charities. They offer you the chance to write a will for free in the hope that you may leave a donation to the charity in your will. 

Step 2. Choose your executor/s

An executor is a person of your choosing who will carry out your instructions and wishes and administer your estate as detailed in your will. 

Most people elect one or two people to undertake the role/s of executor, though you can choose up to a total of four.

Typically, their duties will include applying for probate, if applicable, locating all financial documentation, sending death certificates to banks and freezing accounts. 

Other tasks can include opening a bank account for the estate, paying off any bills and debts including inheritance tax, collecting all money owed to the deceased, selling property and sharing out money to the will’s beneficiaries. 

An executor can be a relative, such as your spouse or grown-up child, a friend or a solicitor (who will charge a fee for this service). But in general they need to be someone you trust who is capable and happy to accept the responsibility of the role. And of course, you need to let them know where they can access your will after you die.

Your executor can also be a beneficiary of your estate.

Step 3. Decide what to include in your will

Assets and beneficiaries

Write down all the assets which make up your estate. This will likely include your house, car, your savings, stocks and shares, insurance policies and pensions as well as personal possessions, valuables and family heirlooms.  

It’s a good idea to make a simple inventory of where your bank accounts, pensions and shares are held, so everything is easy for your executor to find and to access when the time comes.

Next, you’ll need to detail how you’d like to share your assets amongst your family, friends, or charities - the beneficiaries.

Remember that some legacies - unless given to your spouse or a charity - will be liable for Inheritance Tax. Rules are complicated and this is where a solicitor’s knowledge can be useful to help minimise the amount of Inheritance Tax payable on your estate.

Funeral requests

You can include funeral wishes in your will, such as whether you’d like to be buried or cremated and even what music you’d like played at your service. 

Name legal guardians for your children

If you have children under 18, you can use your will to name who you’d like to become their legal guardian should you and your children’s other parent pass away. 

Of course, you will need to discuss this with whoever you nominate to be sure that they’re willing to take on the responsibility should the worse happen. 

Step 4. Make sure it’s valid

However you decide to write your will, it’s only valid if two independent witnesses see you signing it (this applies to wills in England and Wales; in Scotland, you need one witness).

Witnesses are needed to confirm that the person signing is the same person who wrote the will, that the person has the mental capacity to know what they are signing and that they have not been pressured into signing it.

These witnesses must also sign the will in your presence for it to be valid. They don’t need to read what’s written in the will.

Your witnesses should have no stake in the will (in other words, they shouldn’t be beneficiaries, or be the spouse or civil partner of a beneficiary) or they will lose their right to their share of the estate. 

There are two big things to think about when writing your will; firstly who you want to benefit, say in terms of money or individual personal gifts, like leaving a piece of jewellery to your niece, or your prized record collection to your brother.

Then you need to decide who will write your will - a will writing service or a solicitor - and this is one area where the cheapest option may not be the best one.
Sue Hayward, Personal Finance & Consumer Journalist, Broadcaster & Author

What if I need to update the will?

If there are changes to your circumstances, you may want to make alterations to your will. 

You can update a will either by making:

  • A codicil to your existing will
  • A new will

Making a codicil

A codicil is a document which allows you to make amendments or to add to a will. You can make as many codicils as you like, though it will make administering the will more complicated. 

The codicil needs to be signed and witnessed in the same way as your original will (but you don’t need to use the same witnesses). 

Making a codicil is only suitable for minor changes, such as naming a new executor if an original executor dies. 

Making a new will

At times, you may need to make significant changes to your will that have come about due to major life events such as getting married, remarried or divorced, having a child or grandchild, inheriting money, property or other assets. 

In these cases, writing a new will might be your best option. 

The new will should clearly state that it revokes all previous wills and codicils. Your old will plus any copies should be destroyed.

How much does a will cost?

It depends on who writes your will and how complicated your affairs are.

Solicitors may charge from around £200 for the simplest of wills, rising to more than £500 for more complex wills.

Will-writing services start at around £100. 

DIY templates cost from around £20.

Free Wills Month is a charity-led campaign that usually occurs twice a year. It offers people aged 55 or over the chance to get a will drafted or amended for free by a participating solicitor. 

If you use the service you get the chance to leave a gift to one of the charities involved. 

To find out when the next ‘free wills month’ is taking place, go to the campaign’s website.

Where do I need to store my will?

Your will needs to be kept in a safe and secure place – and you should let your executor know where that is. 

If you have drawn up a will with a solicitor then they’ll usually store a copy of it at no charge to you. You will get your own copy to keep, too. 

If you use a will-writing service, they can store your will but might charge you for this service. 

In England and Wales, you can also store your will with HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) by posting it or taking it to a local probate registry office. The service costs £20 and you can find out exactly how to do it on the government website.

What if I don't have a will?

Recent research* has found that 31 million people in the UK (that’s three in five of us) have not written a will. 

Without a will, there’s no guarantee that your loved ones will be protected and benefit from your estate. And you risk leaving them with complicated legal complications to deal with, too.

Passing away without a will is known as dying ‘intestate’ and in these cases, the estate of the deceased person is shared out following the rules of intestacy.

In England and Wales these rules share out the estate between close or blood relatives.

For example:

  • If you are married or in a civil partnership with no children, your surviving partner inherits everything
  • If you are married or in a civil partnership and have children, your surviving partner inherits the first £270,000 of an estate, plus half of everything left over after this amount. The rest is shared out between the deceased’s children
  • If you have children and your spouse is deceased, then your children will inherit equal shares
  • If you don’t have a partner or children, your estate may be inherited by parents, siblings, half-siblings and other family members.

Dying intestate means that people you might have wanted to get a share of your inheritance – such as step-children, close friends or a charity – won’t benefit. 

Importantly, partners who are unmarried or not in a civil partnership also have no automatic claim on their deceased partner’s estate when they die intestate.

This is the case even if you've lived as a couple for many years and have children together.

Rules of intestacy differ in Scotland. You can find out more on the UK government website.