Failing to write a will could end up causing a lot of hassle for your loved ones when you die. Plus your estate may not end up as you would have wished.
And if you’re not married to your partner a will is especially important, as they will not automatically inherit your estate.
If you don't have a will then consider writing one sooner than later. And, if you already have one then check it's still appropriate and ensure you're happy with whoever is named as the executor.
1. Add up the value of your assets (estate)
Start by working out what you're worth, generally everything you own less everything you owe. This is the value of your ‘estate'. You can use our Inheritance Tax calculator to help.
2. Do you need to write a will?
If you're not married (or not in a civil partnership) then you should definitely write a will. Fail to do so and your partner won't automatically inherit your estate when you die.
If you're married (or in a civil partnership) and your estate is worth more than £450,000 (£250,000 if you have children) then your spouse won't automatically get everything when you die, so writing a will is a strongly recommended.
Even if your estate is worth less than this you might still want to write a will to ensure it's distributed as you want when you die.
3. How do you want your estate to be split up?
It's likely you'll want some, or all of your estate to pass to your surviving spouse if you have one. You can pass assets to your spouse free of inheritance tax along with any unused portion of your inheritance tax nil rate band – to be added to their allowance when they die.
You may also wish to leave assets to other relatives, friends or charities.
If your estate is well in excess of the inheritance tax (IHT) nil rate band, currently £325,000, then you may want to consider ways to reduce the likelihood of your estate paying IHT when you die. Read our inheritance tax page for more details.
4. Write the will
You could write your own will. You simply need to state your intentions on a piece of paper that is signed by two independent witnesses (who cannot be beneficiaries or their spouses). Using a DIY will kit, costing around £10, would make this easier as you'll just need to fill in templates.
However, unless your situation is straightforward then spending some money on professional help is usually a good idea. Solicitors charge around £150+, the exact amount depending on location and complexity.
5. Choose an executor
An important, but often overlooked, aspect of a will is naming an executor. When you die it'll be their job to ensure the correct amount of inheritance tax, if any, is paid and that everyone named in the will gets their share of your estate – a process called ‘probate'. Most solicitors and banks will nominate themselves by default when writing wills, but this could cost your estate a fortune in fees when you die - it's almost like writing them a blank cheque.
A better idea would be to nominate a trusted relative or friend (they can be a beneficiary). They may be able to complete the task themselves (typically 20-30 hours work) or can shop around for a competitive quote from professionals at that time.
6.Review your will from time to time
Wills are not set in stone. You should review it periodically, especially if you marry or divorce. If you wish to amend you can either add supplementary changes (known as 'codicils') to your existing will or write a new one.
7.Changes after you die
Your will can be changed within two years after your death using a Deed of Variation. All affected beneficiaries must agree to any changes, no-one can be compensated for anything they give up and none of the assets can be affected by a gift with reservation (basically a gift where you still owned or used the asset).
What happens if I die without writing a will?
If you die without making a will (known as 'Intestate') then your estate will be divided up according to a set of rules. In simple terms, if you're married then the first £450,000 passes to your spouse (£250,000 if you have children) with the balance divided between your spouse and the next-in line. If unmarried or you have no surviving spouse your estate will be distributed equally to the next in line. For full details read our inheritance tax page.
What's ‘tenancy in common'?
Suppose you own a property worth £600,000 jointly with a partner to whom you're not married. When you die the property would normally pass to them. But while there's no IHT to pay at that time (because your share worth £300,000 falls within your nil rate band) your partner's estate is now worth £600,000 so will likely to subject to IHT when they die. You could instead pass your £300,000 share to someone else, e.g. children or other relatives, using a ‘tenants in common' agreement. This avoids increasing the value of your partner's estate while still allowing them to live in the property until they die.
What about care for children under age 18?
If you have children under 18 you should state who you would wish to act as a guardian (i.e. carry out parental duties) until the children reach 18.
What happens if I leave money to children?
Children cannot inherit money or assets until age 18, so they'll be held in trust for them until then – or a later if age if stipulated by the will.
Do married couple's need to make a will each?
Yes. It's common to write ‘mirror' wills so that the outcome should be the same regardless of who dies first.
Useful Information & Links
Read more about wills, probate and inheritance tax on our inheritance tax page.
Use our Inheritance Tax calculator to work out the value of your estate and determine whether you should be worried about tax.
The Will Expert website provides a lot of useful information about wills and The Probate Service has a useful guide to probate.