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.
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 without making a will don't expect anything to go to your partner.
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 any finances – such as paying off the mortgage and/or other debts out of the 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 even apply to your will as default, so check before signing anything.
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 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 house in negative equity, they don't have to take it.
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 to plan 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. 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 qualify individual solicitors or will-writers (though you can ask for their experience) so our primary focus is on cost not feedback or expertise. If that's your prime concern, then looking for recommendations and reputation of individual will writers or solicitors is the best bet.
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.
Help for those on low incomes
If you're on a low income, have little savings and are either over 70, disabled, have a disabled child or are a single parent, there is a chance you may be able to get help writing a will through the Community Legal Service. This scheme helps those who wouldn't normally be able to afford legal advice.
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, eg, 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's checked by the legal team, who'll send the will 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 & October it's Free Wills Month It offers - as the name suggests - free wills to those aged 55 and over in 20 towns & cities across the UK.
The towns taking part in Free Wills Month in October 2013 will be announced in September 2013.
The key is that you must enter your postcode during an active month on its wills website. It'll then come up with a list of solicitors close to you who are participating in the campaign. Just call the one of your choice to book your Free Wills appointment.
This scheme is backed by charities, and in return, be prepared for your solicitor to ask you whether you have considered making a bequest to a charity in your will (ie leave the charity something when you die). It's hoped you will do so, but you're under no obligation.
Will Aid - Nationwide
A UK-wide scheme, run every November, 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, £40 to amend an existing will); less than it'd cost direct. 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 2011 it raised over £2.2 million for the charities. Solicitors do it primarily to aid the charities, though of course it does bring in potential new customers for other things.
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. Use the redemption code willaid2012.
Will Relief Scotland
Each September, a small scheme for Scottish residents is Will Relief Scotland. This is a partnership between Scottish solicitors and four charities based in Scotland specialising 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 Free Will 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
Low cost solicitors
Which? offers an online will-writing service with single wills costing £89 and joint wills £149 (currently on offer for £74 and £119 respectively until 30 June 2013). 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.
You're asked questions about your personal situation (you can call for telephone support, Mon to Fri 9am to 5pm, when filling in the online form) 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 near you to check it (including conflict checks and money laundering) and suggest any changes before being sent back to you.
MyLawyer: The website MyLawyer charges £89 for singles and £139 for couples (self service, ie, not checked by a solicitor, versions are £49 for singles and £89 for couples, though there are several cheaper DIY options below).
Q-Will: A solicitor in Leeds offers online wills via it's 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* puts you in touch with local lawyers who provide a quote 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 whether to go ahead with the offer.
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 one that provides specialist legal advice for older and vulnerable people, their families and carers at 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 Fellowship of Professional Willwriters & Probate Practitioners.
There are also templates on several websites where you input your details online and either be emailed or sent a copy of your will in the post. Sites include: OnlineWillWriter (costing £24.95, covers England, Wales and Scotland), Makeawillonline (cost £29.50 for one or £39.50 for two, covers England and Wales) or My Scottish Will (costing £45, covers Scotland).
There are some basic legal requirements that are needed to make a will and DIYing will mean this rests on your shoulders (do 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 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
How do you store a will?
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.
Do debts die with you?
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 Direct.gov website.
What about inheritance tax?
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.
Can I leave a will for if I become incapacitated?
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. Or if you know that's coming, appoint what's called a lasting power of attorney.
If you've no living will or lasting power of attorney, and this happens to you, 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 years to process, to get back in control of your estate. More info about this on the Public Guardian website.
What happens if I don't leave a will?
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 goes to your spouse; the remainder is split between your children.
If you've not got children the first £450,000 goes to your spouse; the remainder to any surviving parents. But if there aren't any, then it'll pass to your siblings. And if you don't have any either, then the rest will also go to your spouse.
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.
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.