Do you need a will?

It’s easy to put off writing a will. We explain why you need a will and the risk of not getting one

Female student at home studying
(Image credit: getty images)

Wondering whether you need a will? You’re not alone - four in five UK adults under 35 don’t have a will according to Royal London (opens in new tab). And while more of us make one as we get older, by the age of 55, there’s still one in three people who haven’t made a will. 

A will is a legal document, and though making one is never going to be a fun job, it’s an important one and can save your family from a complicated legal process as well as extra upset at an emotional and difficult time.

“The main reason for writing a will is to set out how your money and possessions are divided up when you die,” says Sarah Pennells, consumer finance specialist at Royal London (opens in new tab).

“If you die without a will - known as “dying intestate” - your money and possessions will be passed on according to the rules on intestacy. This could be very different to your wishes,” she adds.

This may mean the family or friends whom you would want to benefit don’t get anything, or your family may end up facing a costly inheritance tax bill. By not making a will, you also can’t take advantage of some of the tax breaks that are available with wills.

And even if you have made a will, it’s not a case of job done, as it’s still important to review your will at different life stages, especially after big events like getting married or divorced, starting a family or if you come into large sums of money like an inheritance.

If you’re thinking about writing a will, then here’s everything you need to know. 

Why do I need to make a will? 

Your will is your chance to say how you want everything you own, known as your ‘estate’, shared out.   

This includes any property you own along with savings, pensions, investments and personal items, like pieces of jewellery or treasured photo albums. 

Providing it’s made properly, it can save family squabbles and put a stop to claims from anyone who feels they ought to be entitled to something, but haven’t been included. 

What you decide to put in your will is up to you. You can choose to leave everything you own to one person, share it between different members of your family and friends or even leave the lot to charity, but whatever you decide, it’s important to make your wishes known and make them watertight in a will.

If you don’t have family, or don’t want them to benefit, it’s still worth making a will, even if you leave the lot to charity, as in the worst case, if you die without a will, everything you own could end up in the Government coffers.

What’s the risk of not having a will?  

“If you die without a will, your ‘estate’ – which means everything you own - will be distributed under the laws of intestacy,” says Sean McCann, chartered financial planner at NFU Mutual. (opens in new tab)

This according to Sarah Pennells can mean, “the people you want to inherit may not do so, for example, if you live with your partner but aren’t married to them or in a civil partnership, they have no automatic right to inherit and would have to go to court in order to make a claim. This can be emotionally and financially costly.”

“Likewise, if you have step-children, they do not have the right to inherit under intestacy rules, unless you have formally adopted them”.

Without a will – the whole process of winding up your estate becomes much more complicated for those left behind, as well as potentially costly and more time consuming.   

If you make a will, you appoint one or more Executors, who are responsible for sorting out your financial affairs. However in the absence of an Executor, your closest living relative - usually your husband, wife or civil partner - will need to apply to be the ‘administrator’ of your estate, in order to begin the process of winding up your estate.  

Do you need to make a will if you are married? 

You should still make a will, even if you are married, or in a civil partnership, as if you die, everything will not necessarily automatically go directly to your husband or wife. 

Under intestacy law (opens in new tab) there are strict rules that state who gets what along with limits if there is no will in place.

Darran Harrison, Wealth Planner at financial services provider Kingswood (opens in new tab) says: “If you’re married or in a civil partnership and you die intestate (without leaving a valid will), your spouse or civil partner will only receive your personal possessions, along with – all of the rest of your estate if you have no children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, or the first £270,000 of your estate, if you have children, grandchildren or great grandchildren, plus half of the rest of the estate. The other half of the rest of the estate will go to your children.” 

Sue Hayward

Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound.  Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!