Let's be brutal - we're all going to die. And if it happens when you're will-less, on top of the grief, it can cause a financial nightmare for the people you care about.
This guide will show you how you can get will-writing done for free, either by a solicitor in return for a small charity donation, or DIY if it's simple.
In this guide
While every effort's been made to ensure this article's accuracy, it doesn't constitute legal advice tailored to your individual circumstances. If you act on it, you acknowledge that you do so at your own risk. We can't assume responsibility and don't accept liability for any damage or loss which may arise as a result of your reliance upon it.
Do you need a will?
Die will-less and your affairs can be in limbo for years. Yet many either don't want to think about making a will or are worried about the cost. You must be aware it could leave behind big problems, possibly as severe as being unable to pay the bills as the bank's locked off the money. So...
Whatever your age, if you've assets eg, a house, savings, or a business, and people or others you'd like to look after, consider making a will.
While thinking, talking and planning for death may feel uncomfortable, you need to consider how much worse the situation would be if you died or became incapacitated - through illness, accident, old age or emergency - without sorting it.
Not making a will can cause months or years of grief for your loved ones. Site user Hollie Bird tweeted us:
"Over two years on I'm dealing with the fall out from Mum not having a will! Please get a will!"
There are many specific reasons for writing a will, including:
Children: If you have children or step-children under 18, you should choose who will look after them and ensure there are funds to help.
Unmarried couples: The law doesn't really recognise this, so don't expect anything to go to your partner if you don't make a will.
Divorced: You may want to update your will to include what happens to your assets if a previous partner remarries.
Pets: Decide what should happen to family pets.
Specific funeral plans: If you know what you want your funeral to be like, you can detail it so that your family doesn't have to make the decisions.
Property: ‘Joint tenant' mortgages automatically pass to the other owner. If you've a ‘tenants in common' mortgage, it's important to say what happens to your share of the house. If you own a property overseas, inheritance laws may be different to the UK.
Change in circumstances: Update your will when you marry, divorce or have kids.
What does a will do?
Writing a will has three main functions:
To name your executors
These are the people who'll look after the financial process when you die. Try to choose a responsible and trusted friend or relative, who can think clearly in a troubled time.
Alternatively some name a bank or solicitor, though they often charge monstrous fees (and can add themselves automatically), so make sure you only allow this if you've chosen it for yourself.
They're also the people who will sort out finances – such as paying off the mortgage and/or other debts out of your estate (see what happens to debts when you die).
One useful tip we've seen recently is to even include internet passwords in a will so that your executor has access to all of your online accounts.
Do remember though, you're under NO obligation to add the writer of your will as an exectutor, or in fact buy any additional services on top of the writing costs. Some may suggest this, or add it to your will as default, so check.
To distribute your estate
This is where you work out who you want your estate to go to. That means everything you own at the point you die, including your property, businesses, car, savings, investments, pension fund, life insurance, expensive jewellery, pets and more.
Be aware, though, you can't force people to take what you leave them. Whether it's a sofa, or a house in negative equity, they don't have to take it. If a person disclaims a bequest, it goes in with the residue of the estate. This is dealt with under the residuary clause in the will.
To mitigate inheritance tax
If you die intestate (without a will) there are strict laws about to whom and how your estate is distributed (see intestate rules). This causes two problems. First, the money may not go where you want, and secondly, it's likely to be inefficient for inheritance tax purposes.
The law says you pay 40% of any assets worth over £325,000 that you leave, so those with valuable houses or larger estates could pay a fortune. Yet there are many legal ways you can plan ahead to reduce this - see the Inheritance Tax guide.
Option 1: Free or cheap professional wills
Wills are legal documents, and as small errors can cause big problems, it's preferable to have someone legally-qualified draft it for you. But getting a solicitor to write your will isn't cheap. Even a simple will could easily cost £150 in fees, and you'll have to pay VAT on top of that.
However some solicitors have more expertise at will-writing than others, and just because you get it through a charity is no guarantee of quality. Unfortunately it's not easy to review and assess individual solicitors or will-writers so our primary focus is on cost, not feedback or expertise.
Are you already entitled to one?
A number of organisations and groups provide wills to limited numbers of qualifying individuals, so check if you're entitled to one of these first.
Trade unions and employers
A number of trade unions, including major ones like the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), the NASUWT teachers' union, the Fire Brigades Union and Unison offer free or heavily discounted will-writing services to their members – so if you've got your union card they're worth checking.
Alternatively a few employers may offer will-writing as part of their legal services. Check exactly how it works, though. If it's just filling in a template letter, you may be better with the full solicitor-drafted options below.
Included in home or car insurance legal cover
If you opted to get legal cover as part of your home or car insurance policy, check whether it includes a will service. For example, More Than's approx £20 home insurance add-on legal service allows access to a range of wills and other legal template documents.
Complete your details and the will is checked by a legal team, who'll send it back to you for signing.
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Many charities offer solicitor will writing schemes, and these are usually completely free. In return, while you're not obliged to, they hope you'll make a donation or bequest (a donation in your will) as part of it. Here's a list of the main schemes...
Do remember it is a charity paying for your will, and it may be shelling out £100s, so please seriously consider leaving a bequest.
Free Wills Month – in England and Wales
Every March and October it's Free Wills Month. It offers - as the name suggests - free wills to those aged 55 and over in around 30 towns and cities across the UK.
This is an opportunity for you to get a free will, drafted by a solicitor. Normally, you could pay £150 or more for even the simplest will.
Charities back the scheme, so be prepared for your solicitor to ask you to consider making a bequest to a charity in your will (leaving the charity something when you die). It's hoped you will, but you're under no obligation.
The towns and cities taking part in Free Wills Month in October 2013 are:
Bolton, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Chelmsford, Cheltenham/Gloucester, Chester/north Wales, Colchester, Cornwall, Derby, Exeter, Huddersfield, Ipswich, Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lincolnshire, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Nottingham, Plymouth, Preston, Stoke-on-Trent, Shropshire, Stockport, Swansea, Torquay and Wakefield.
You must enter your postcode during the month on the Free Wills Month website. It'll then come up with solicitors close to you who are taking part. Just call one to book your Free Wills appointment.
Will Aid - nationwide
A UK-wide scheme, run every November (though you can book now), Will Aid teams up with over 1,000 solicitors to provide basic wills. One of its main advantages is it doesn't impose a minimum age on who can get a will.
There's no set fee but Will Aid hopes you'll make a donation of around £90 for a single will (£135 for a couple); less than it'd cost direct (you can easily pay £150 + VAT for a solicitor-drafted will). Plus, as it's a donation, you can choose to add Gift Aid too. Just follow three simple steps:
The money donated is split between ActionAid, Age UK, British Red Cross, Christian Aid, NSPCC, Save the Children UK, SCIAF, Sightsavers, and Trocaire. In 2012 it raised £2.1 million for the charities. Solicitors do it primarily to help the charities, though of course it does bring in potential new customers as well.
Usually, this is a very efficient system. However, for a scheme this size there can be the odd glitch, such as appointments filling up quickly. For a discussion on the etiquette of suggested donations and responses, read the full Will Aid discussion on the forum.
You also get free will registration (to make it easy for your family to find your will) via Certainty National Wills Register. This year's redemption code will be willaid2013cert.
Will Relief Scotland
Each September (so the next one is in 2014), a small scheme for Scottish residents is Will Relief Scotland. This is a partnership between Scottish solicitors and four charities which specialise in development work and the relief of poverty overseas.
The charities are: Mission Aviation Fellowship in Sudan (in Glasgow), EMMS International (in Edinburgh), Blythswood Care (in Evanton, Ross-shire) and Signpost International (in Dundee).
Suggested donations are £80 for a single, £105 for a joint and £40 for an update. The donation is given to the solicitor to pass on to Will Relief Scotland. Find your nearest solicitor from around 80 towns on the Will Relief Scotland site or phone 01349 830777.
Individual charity schemes
Most individual charities that operate free will-drafting services do it in the hope of a bequest (a donation in your will). This has the advantage that you needn't pay now, it'll come out of your estate and it's inheritance tax-deductable.
Cancer Research UK
Over-55s can get a free will drawn up or updated via Cancer Research UK's online FreeWill Service or call the legacy hotline on 0300 123 1862.
To use the online service, choose one of the online solicitors, fill in your details and enter the relevant voucher code at the checkout. The solicitor will then review your will and post a copy to you.
For offline, once you've chosen the solicitor you want to use, call it to arrange an appointment making sure you mention the Cancer Research FreeWill Service. Cancer Research pays the solicitor a set fee.
The Stroke Association
The Stroke Association is offers a free simple will. To get info on your nearest participating solicitor, either email email@example.com, print out and post the form on The Stroke Association website or call 020 7566 1505.
If you have a particular charity in mind that you'd like to leave a gift to, check with it whether it runs a scheme of its own.
Option 2: Low-cost solicitor wills
If the free solicitor writing services above don't fit, there are a few other low-cost options for making a will. These are usually best where affairs are simple.
As with using any solicitor, they are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and you can go to the Legal Ombudsman if things do go wrong. Our expertise, of course, is saving money so the following are based on price, not quality.
Which? offers an online will-writing service with single wills costing £89 and joint wills £149 (currently on offer for £74 and £119 respectively during November). It says it may not be suitable for those with overseas property, planning to emigrate, wanting to include a business in the will or not wanting to leave a jointly-owned property to the other owner.
Alternatively, you could subscribe to Which?'s Legal Service for £86 a year - this comes with a free will. If you're only joining for the will, remember to cancel before the second year's fee falls due. Which? also has a free guide to the key information you need to consider before getting your will created.
If you create a will through Which?, you're asked questions online about your personal situation (you can call for telephone support, Mon to Fri 9am to 5pm) and an electronic document is sent to a solicitor to be checked. The document is sent back to you 7-10 days later and you can print and store the will.
Saga's Legal Essentials plan provides unlimited legal advice by phone or email to those aged 50 or over on a range of everyday issues from nuisance neighbours to faulty goods. It costs £45 for non-Saga customers or £30 for anyone who has another Saga product.
It also prints, binds and stores your will (£48 if you had a standard online will, otherwise free). Call 0800 015 0581 or apply via its online vault.
There are various fixed-fee legal document services that allow you to carry out certain legal processes, including creating a will, solely online.
You're usually asked a series of questions to create your document, which will then be sent to a solicitor to check it (including conflict checks and money laundering) and suggest any changes before being sent back to you.
Rocket Lawyer: Rocket Lawyer works on a subscription basis - it's £25 a month for a range of legal services. As part of this, you get a 30 minute consultation with a qualified solicitor - which you can use to have your will reviewed.
New users can benefit from Rocket Lawyer's three-day free trial. Use these free days to create and get your will checked and you'll never have to pay a penny, so long as you cancel in time.
MyLawyer: The website MyLawyer charges £95 for singles and £145 for mirror wills - these wills are solicitor-checked.
Q-Will: A solicitor in Leeds offers online wills via its Q-Will service, costing £36 or £66 depending on which will you request.
Glosslegal: Developed by a trust and estates solicitor, Glosslegal charges £34.95 for a self-printing single will and £89.95 for a bound and posted version for couples.
The commercial Locate A Solictor service from TakeLegalAdvice.com* puts you in touch with lawyers who provide quotes for legal advice.
Once you've registered and indicated what legal services you're after, a local firm will get in touch and you can decide if you want to go ahead.
This can be a useful tool to find out how much a solicitor costs compared with others but as it's new, it's less a "great way to save money", more a "try it to see if it works for you".
You can also find a local solicitor on the Law Society's database. Or if you need one that provides specialist legal advice for older and vulnerable people, their families and carers, try Solicitors For The Elderly.
Option 3: DIY wills
If you've very simple circumstances, a ‘template' will, available from stationery shops or computer software packages, which you complete and fill at home, can be a cheap way to do it.
Before going further, you must know if you make any mistakes, you won't benefit from the protection you'd get if a solicitor did it, whether that's professional indemnity insurance, recourse to the Legal Ombudsman, or various codes of practice from The Society of Will Writers, Institute of Professional Will Writers or the Fellowship of Professional Willwriters & Probate Practitioners.
Online DIY wills
There are also templates on several websites where you input your details online and then you're emailed your will, or sent a copy in the post. Sites include: Online WillWriter (costs £29.95, covers England, Wales and Scotland), Makeawillonline.co.uk (£29.50 for one or £39.50 for two, covers England and Wales) or My Scottish Will (costing £49.95, covers Scotland).
What do I need to know to do a DIY will?
There are some basic legal requirements that are needed to make a will and DIYing will mean these rest on your shoulders (remember the potential Inheritance Tax issues too).
For example, you must be over the age of 18 and have the mental capacity to make a will. It also needs to be dated and witnessed correctly and it must state that it replaces all previous versions (and if there are any, these should be destroyed).
It's common for people to make mistakes, such as names of people or charities being misspelled or information about assets being too vague, so be careful and be as specific as possible.
In anything other than simple cases, as it's a legal document, a solicitor or qualified will-writer should check it fully to ensure its accuracy and to avoid the chance of it being invalid or contested when you die, which could cost more in the long run.
Q&A: Wills and inheritance
Q. How do you store a will?
A. Once you've created a will, it's usually stored with a solicitor and you get a copy. Most charge a small fee for this. If you'd rather store it yourself, you can just keep it at home but this isn't really recommended. The High Court of Justice can keep it for you for a fee of £20. Withdrawing it is free. More info on the Justice website.
Q. Do debts die with you?
A.This is a commonly held myth. While it's true to an extent, as always with these things it's a lot more complex than that.
If you have debts including credit card, loan or mortgage balances, then that amount will come out of your estate before your beneficiaries will get the money. If you don't have any assets at all then the debts will be written off. Here's three simplified examples to help explain it...
Debts £100,000, no assets. This is simple, you've nothing to leave and no one has to take the debts.
Debts £40,000, you own a £200,000 home. Here the debt will need paying or sorting from the estate before the person you left the home to can take it.
Debts £120,000, you own a £100,000 home. Again for someone to get your home the debts will need clearing. Your beneficiary could choose to pay this to keep hold of the house, but of course it'd mean they'd take on the extra debt. Alternatively they could choose not to take the home.
For full details on this see the Gov.UK website.
Q. What about inheritance tax?
A. Inheritance Tax is what you (or technically your estate) has to pay if the value of your estate exceeds the government's threshold, currently £325,000 per person.
Anything above this limit is taxed at 40%, so can cost loved ones hundreds of thousands in the event of your death. Yet it's possible to legally avoid huge swathes of it, or possibly pay none at all. See the Inheritance Tax guide for more info.
Q. Can I leave a will for if I become incapacitated?
A. It's not just when you die that having a will can come in useful. Everyone should consider having a will to say who should look after their finances if they become unable to do it themselves; due to dementia, mental illness or being in an accident.
Writing a Living Will (also called an Advance Decision) means that you can specify the level of medical treatment you'll receive if you're incapacitated and can't communicate at the time. You may, for example, specify not to be resuscitated if your heart stops. This is legally binding.
Another measure you can take, for example, if you are in the early stages of a degenerative disease is to appoint what's called a lasting power of attorney. There are two types - one relating to your health, and one to your financial affairs. You can make one type, or both.
If you've no living will or lasting power of attorney, and you become incapacitated, the responsibility for looking after your estate passes to the Government.
If you've nothing in place, your family will need to apply for a court order, which can take months to process, to get back in control of your estate. You can read more on this on our Power of Attorney guide.
Q. What happens if I don't leave a will?
A. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year without having a will, known as intestacy, making it complex for all family left behind, especially if you are not married.
If this happens to you, there are strict rules on what will happen to your estate and it could leave someone you want to protect unprotected. What happens depends on where in the UK you live...
In England, Wales or Northern Ireland
Married couples / Civil partnerships. For those who are married, ie, not just co-habiting, the rules depend on whether you have children or not.
If you have children, the first £250,000 (plus your personal possessions) goes to your spouse; half of the remainder is split between your children. The remaining quarter is used to provide interest income for the surviving partner - on their death the capital's split equally between the children.
If you've not got children the first £450,000, your personal possessions and half of the remainder of your estate goes to your spouse. The other half of the remainder goes equally to any surviving parents. If there aren't any, then it'll pass to your siblings, or their children if your brothers & sisters are deceased.
If you're not married (including living together). Here the money is distributed to kids if you have them, if not, to surviving parents. If there aren't any of those it's to brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles in that order and finally to the state if you have no surviving relatives.
This means an unmarried partner is not entitled to ANYTHING. For more info see Gov.UK.
The rules are more complicated in Scotland, depending as well on the value of your property, furniture and cash savings, see the HMRC rules of intestacy for more info.