We all know what a will is, don’t we? Or do we? It may seem like an obvious thing, but when Macmillan Cancer Support carried out a survey and discovered that 98 percent of people couldn’t accurately describe what a will is actually for, it may be time to think again. Although most people understand that a will is about ensuring that your beneficiaries receive what you want them to receive, there are other factors, and this is what was missing from most explanations.
Those other factors include the fact that having a will means that you won’t die ‘intestate’, which makes things very difficult for your family members, and makes probate a much longer drawn out thing than it really should be. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that a will needs to be updated after a re-marriage, or a divorce. It is a little more complicated than some people imagine, but this should not mean that you shouldn’t write a will – if anything, it means that writing a will simplifies things after you have died.
Macmillan’s survey also said that around 70 percent of people like to plan ahead, but that only 40 percent of the UK’s adult population had actually written their will. This is most likely due to the fact that people still find talking about – or even thinking about – death a taboo, or a frightening prospect, and therefore they put it off. Unfortunately, when writing a will is so important, and when there are many companies and people who are happy to help in such an endeavour, not writing a will causes far more problems than writing one would ever do. A short time of feeling uncomfortable thinking about your own mortality is far better than leaving confusion and bad feeling for your family after you pass away.
The misunderstandings that come with the idea of will writing include thinking that you have to be over a certain age (40 is the one that most cite) before you can write one. This is borne out with evidence that shows that 80 percent of 18-34 year olds don’t have a will compared to just 32 percent of those over 55. Another confusion is the cost of will writing. It is often assumed that will writing is a very expensive process, when in reality the cost of usually a lot less than people think.
But the problem comes when people think wills are solely about money. And those who have very little in savings or no assets therefore don’t think that a will is relevant to them, or their families. This is not the case, however. Wills are about more than who gets what. They can also set out what the deceased would like to have happen after their death, and this is especially important if children are involved.
Sometimes, people may wish to give their children their inheritance before they die, rather than waiting for the inevitable to happen. The Inheritance Act does allow for this in some circumstances. Nobody wants to see the wealth that they have accumulated during their lives going to waste, but assuming that it will go to their children can be a mistake – with inheritance tax and the potential for needing it to be used to pay off creditors, there may be a lot less than you might think, and that can be a big shame.
Which is why it is sometimes a much better idea to give your children’s inheritance to them before you pass away, in the form of a gift. This can work particularly well if your estate would otherwise be worth more than £325,000 (or £650,000 if you take a spouse’s tax free limit) which is the threshold for having to pay inheritance tax. As long as you survive for seven years or more, there will be no tax to pay. If, however, you die within seven years of giving the gift, then it will be counted as part of your estate, and subject to a forty percent inheritance tax rate.
Giving your saved up wealth away earlier than you might otherwise have done is also better for your children. People are living much longer, with the numbers of those over the age of 90 in the UK having tripled since 1980. This means that people are having to wait much longer to receive their inheritance, and often receive it at a time in their lives where they don’t necessarily need it as mortgages are often already paid off and there is not much debt. If they were to receive it younger, in their 30s, perhaps, rather than in their 50s or 60s, it would be much more helpful, enabling more people to get a foot on the housing ladder, for example.
If the inheritance is not given at an earlier stage, then it can simply be added to savings, and this is then passed to their own children, but again, at a time when it is not going to do much good. Money can pass down through generations without ever being put to good use in this way, which is a waste and a shame.
If you are considering giving money away to your children while you are alive rather than leaving it in a will, then it is wise to speak to a financial planner. You don’t want to leave yourself short by giving away too much or not considering your own needs. Will you still want to go on holiday? Treat yourself to meals out? Make sure you can still enjoy your own life too.
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher was always a controversial figure, and now that her estate has been seen to avoid paying many millions in inheritance tax, the controversy rages on.
The reason behind this zero tax bill is that Mrs Thatcher Belgravia house is registered to an offshore trust.
Margaret Thatcher’s will left £4.7 million to be shared between her children, Mark and Carol, and her grandchildren (once they reach the age of 25). However, in addition to that money were was a house located in Chester Square, which was valued at £12.5 million. Normally that house would have been subject to inheritance tax at either 40 percent of any value over £325,000 up to £5 million. However, in order to be subject to the inheritance tax rules, the property would need to be registered to a UK resident.
And Mrs Thatcher’s house was not. In 1991 it was bought by Bakeland Property Ltd who then sub-leased the house to a company with the same name, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands – this just happens to be an offshore tax haven.
Since this is the case, despite the fact that Mrs Thatcher died, the company that owns the house still exists. If a person owns a property and they die, that property needs to be passed to another UK resident. A company cannot die, and therefore the property does not need to be passed on to anyone.
If you have children under 18, then you should look at ensuring your will contains information about who will look after them should you die, particularly if you are unmarried, divorced, or separated. These people are known as guardians, and without having them mentioned specifically within your will, there could be a long legal battle over who will care for your children. In the end, it will be the courts that choose a guardian for your children, and it could be someone who you would not want to take care of them. This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to write the details in your will.
Bear in mind, however, that if there are two parents currently caring for the child, the guardian duties will usually only come into effect on the death of the second parent.
It is usual to appoint family members as guardians because in most cases they already know the children involved. This makes it easier for both parties to move in together and begin a life together. As the children get older, it is sometimes more appropriate for friends of the family to take care of them, especially if they already have children of a similar age. They may also share more similarities with your lifestyle than relatives do. And of course, with families being spread out across the country and beyond, friends tend to live closer, which means your children can stay in the area – and the school – that they know.
It is best to limit the number of guardians to two, and it makes things much easier if they are living in one home. Otherwise, with two guardians living in two different places – guardians who may not even know one another – will mean that the child in question will have to travel between them, causing major disruption for everyone. If you want to ensure that all eventualities are covered, it is possible to appoint substitute guardians should the initial choice prove difficult to manage.
A guardian’s duties are very responsible, and it is not something that everyone will want to do. They will bring up the child, becoming another parent to all intents and purposes. They would organise holidays, birthdays, food, welfare, education, and everything else that a parent would normally do. If there are certain things that you would or would not like to happen regarding your child’s upbringing, then the best idea is to write this down in a separate document, and keep it with your will. Try not to be too rigid in your wishes, though; making things difficult for the guardian could mean that they refuse the job or, if they do take it on, your wishes may not be followed.
Remember, it is often usual for some kind of trust or financial payment to be made via the estate for the upbringing of the child or children. Ideally, the trustees should be different to the guardians, and in this way discussions can be made to ensure that the money is being used for the right things.
Bereavement is a terrible time for everyone, but it is also a busy time, with many different things needing to come together in order for probate to be issued and for the deceased to have a funeral. It can be very easy to ignore or forget about all the legal and necessary things that need to be done at this time, but the longer they are left the harder everything will become. It will mean that probate will take longer, and that can be stressful and time consuming as well. It is particularly important to make things happen quickly if you – or someone else – was financially dependent on the deceased. You or they may be entitled to bereavement allowance, for example. At the very least, finances need to be sorted out to enable life to go on.
Probate can take many months to complete, depending on the complexity of the estate. The bereavement allowance can be up to £2,000, and is used to help those who were financially dependent on the deceased and who now will have a problem because of loss of or lack of finances.
The first thing that definitely needs to be done is to register the death. This is a relatively straightforward thing to do, and when it is completed the Grant of Probate can be issued, and the will can be executed. If the deceased died at home with no medical personnel present, then a doctor will be needed to provide a medical certificate showing cause of death. This can be taken to the register office (within five days) so that you can obtain a death certificate which is needed for everything else. If the deceased died at hospital or in a care home, the medical staff will usually be able to register the death for you.
The death certificate is required to have the body cremated or buried. You may wish to purchase additional copies of the death certificate as a variety of different organisations will need to see them, and rather than waiting for each one to send the certificate back, the executor can contact many of them at once, saving a lot of time.
Next you will want to look at funeral arrangements. The deceased may have had a pre-paid funeral plan, or perhaps they left instructions in their will or spoke about what they wanted when it came to their funeral. This will obviously make things easier for those who are arranging it, but if not there is no need to worry. Think about the person that they were, and you will be able to come up with the ideal funeral for them. Speak to the executors regarding money to pay for the funeral if there was no plan in place as they may be able to organise an advance from the estate.
It may sound rather morbid, but setting up a funeral plan, or arranging your funeral in advance is something that more of us should definitely be doing. It means peace of mind for the person whose funeral it is, and it also means that friends and family members aren’t faced with the ordeal of having to work through organising a funeral whilst they are still grieving and, even if your death was expected, in shock.
So what can you do to make sure that you get the funeral you want, and that your loved ones aren’t made even more upset than they already are at this difficult time?
Firstly, discuss your funeral plans with your loved ones. Even if you don’t want to arrange a pre-paid funeral, you can still talk about what you want to happen. This doesn’t have to wait until you are unwell; it can be done at any time, and once it is done, you can relax knowing that your family know exactly what you want to happen. This can be as simple as stating whether you would rather have a burial or a cremation, or it can be more in depth and you can discuss the music you want, where you want the funeral to be held, and what might happen to your remains afterwards. You might want to specify what people should wear (bright colours, for example) or whether or not there should be flowers. Whatever it is that you want, talk about it and then write it down and keep the information with your will. That way there will be no confusion when the time comes.
The next thing you can do to make things easier for those who will be organising the funeral is to pay for it. That can either be payment in advance through a pre-paid scheme, or you can simply ensure that you put money away for it somewhere safe (and don’t forget to tell those who need to know where it is!). Alternatively, you can set out in your will just how much money you want to spend on your funeral from the estate, and your loved ones can work to your pre-arranged budget.
Finally, if you do arrange funeral insurance or pay into a payment plan, make sure you are aware of what it covers, and whether there might be any additional costs. Check the terms and conditions so that there are no nasty surprises when your family come to claim on the insurance or use the money set aside in the plan.
Some funeral songs are perfect, and include Frank Sinatra’s My Way, Time to Say Goodbye by Andrea Bocelli, We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn, and one of the many versions of Over The Rainbow.
But there are others that are a strange choice and, unless you are planning a funeral that will make people laugh and smile (and of course, maybe you are), then there are some songs that might be best to stay away from.
Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust may seem like an odd choice for a funeral, but it is actually rather popular, as is Don’t Fear The Reaper by the Blue Oyster Cult. However, although some funeral guests may appreciate the joke, and although this may be well in keeping with the deceased’s sense of humour, there are others who may find this sort of song particularly distressing, and it could make an already difficult day much worse for them.
There are many songs that tell a story ending in the death of one or both of the couple involved. Leader of the Pack, Johnny Remember Me, Billy Don’t Be a Hero, even Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks… Again, although they might be a lovely song when alive, when dead they have a completely different meaning and if you are planning your own funeral then you might want to think about what hearing one of these songs might do to those who are listening.
There are other songs that have a deeper meaning, and unless you know and understand the lyrics completely, they may send out the wrong message at your funeral. REM’s The One I Love sounds like a love song, but in actual fact it is all about not particularly caring about the person they claim to love.
And of course, if a song had previously happy memories associated with it, such as being a couple’s wedding song, or one that was played for the birth of a child, then using it at a funeral will potentially ruin that song for the ones left behind. It is always good to think of other people, especially as this is the last memory they will have of you.
Writing a will has been the same for centuries, but it hasn’t changed very much. And that was fine until modern technology came into play – and modern lives. But now, in the 21st century, will writing is out of date and needs to be modernised.
How could that happen?
One idea is that small errors that a judge can easily see are unintentional mistakes, should be overlooked rather than making the entire will invalid. At the moment, an error such as not being in the room when your witnesses sign the will can lead to big problems when it comes to probate. If things like this can be overlooked then the court’s time, and the beneficiaries’ inheritance, can be organised much better.
Another idea is that a will could be written via text, email, or perhaps even voicemail. There are many new and diverse ways to communicate these days, and it seems strange that currently none of them can be used to communicate what someone wants to do with their estate and body after they have died.
Executing a will is also something that always takes a lot of time, and is hard work for the person tasked with the job. If a will could be executed electronically then it would save a lot of time and worry for everyone involved. Documents and information could be passed within seconds rather than days or even weeks.
Or how about lowering the age that you are able to write a will to 16? At the moment, you have to be 18 to write a legally valid will, but lowering the age to 16 may enable young people to take more responsibility, and for those who are terminally ill to be able to make their own decisions about what will happen.
The rules that revolve around writing a will came into force – in the main – during the Victorian era when will writing became more regulated and had a legal status. However, a review by the Law Commission has concluded that these rules are behind the times, and many of them need to be updated to comply with modern living. The worry is that because these rules don’t seem to match up to how we live today, they could be one of the reasons why many people don’t write a will in the first place.
When you write a will, you must follow specific procedures in order for it to be seen as valid. If the rules that have been put in place are not followed, then your will may not be enforced, even if you have made your final wishes clear.
One of the main issues that the Law Commission found in the old rules around wills was the matter of mental capacity. When the term was created, it didn’t take into account illnesses such as dementia, which is changeable, giving the sufferer good days and bad days. Someone with early onset dementia, for example, may have problems with short term memory, but that does not mean that they do not fully understand what they want to do regarding their will. The law as it stands, however, prevents them from writing a will if they have been diagnosed with the disease, which can be problematic for them and their family, as well as highly frustrating.
Times have changed dramatically, and in this modern world it should be quick and easy to create a will that will be valid and lay out all the testator’s wishes. Electronic wills – something that the Law Commission is recommending become commonplace – will certainly help with this, but updated laws regarding medical issues that we now have a much better understanding off will be a great step forward.