Writing a will is a job that not many people relish. But, once it’s done, it’s done. Right? Not necessarily. According to studies, the average useful lifespan of a will is around eight years. What does that mean? It means that, in many cases, within eight years of you writing your will something will have happened to cause you to need to change it. It won’t be the case with everyone, and a large number of people really can simply write their will and then forget all about it (apart from letting loved ones know where it’s kept, of course). However, wills do sometimes need to be updated, and if they aren’t then there can be problems when it comes to probate and executing the will.
When should you update your will?
If something major happens in your life, then think how that will impact your will. Marriage is one of these major life events, as is divorce. If either of these things occur after you have initially written your will, then you will most likely need to update it to include or remove people from it.
Children are another reason to update your will. It is likely that you will want them to inherit some or all of your estate, so they need to be mentioned in your will. Guardians are also an important aspect to include if your children are under 18. And if they turn 18 after you have written the will then the guardians should be removed as they will not be required.
The death of anyone who is mentioned in your will will also mean that it needs updating, and the same is true if you fall out with anyone who was originally meant to inherit. If you change your mind, change your will, otherwise the people you don’t want to inherit will do so anyway.
The UK’s population is aging and increasing. That means that more and more people will eventually need residential care, and that can cost many hundreds of thousands of pounds. That can be taken out of someone’s savings and assets, and in turn that means that their children’s inheritance can be severely reduced.
Since care homes are means tested, if you have over £27,000 capital per annum, you will have to pay. For many, their initial thought is that they should hide their assets, or give them away as gifts so that they don’t get swallowed up in the care system. But is this the right thing to do if you want to protect your children’s inheritance?
There is really only one big ‘don’t’ when it comes to trying to prevent any inheritance from being swallowed up by the government and that’s don’t give your house to your children. It may sound like the ultimate solution, but it’s actually very bad news. It even has a name – the deprivation of wealth. Your local authority has the right to check over your financial records, and they will discover anything along the gifting lines. If the authority believe that you deliberately gifted the property to avoid paying fees, they can reverse the gift, and you will potentially lose it all.
As for the ‘dos’, one good idea is to become joint tenants. For married couples, the ownership details of a property can be changed so that rather than being join owners, you will be tenants in common. This means that within each person’s will they can leave their half of the property in trust to their children – and not to one another. This means that if one half of the couple dies, the other person can stay in the house. However, if they did need to go into a care home, only half of the property would be valued to be taken into account.
Another definite ‘do’ is to appoint a lasting power of attorney. An LPA is someone who is given the power to make decisions for you should you become unable to do so yourself. If you still jointly own your property when you need to go into care, but are unable to make any decisions for yourself, the LPA will be able to help your partner and the inheritance too.
In UK law, you can leave whatever you want to whomever you want, assuming you own the asset in the first place. That means that if you want to leave money or property – or anything else – to your stepchildren, you are perfectly entitled to do so.
The problems start when there is no will. If there is no will then the estate will be distributed according to the laws of intestacy, and these laws are strict. There is a distinct list of people who will receive parts of the estate, and this list must be dealt with in order. The rules of intestacy do not, however, cover stepchildren, and this is important to bear in mind. Only a spouse, adopted child or blood relatives can inherit if there is no will.
And of course, even if you do have a will and you simply write that you want to leave everything to your children (or even siblings) this will not include stepchildren or stepbrothers and sisters. You will need to make a separate point for them.
Even if you have parental responsibility for a child, they still will not inherit unless they are your adopted or biological child. If they are stepchildren then the only way they will be able to inherit anything from your estate once you die is to write a will and ensure they are mentioned by name.
It is possible for a stepchild to challenge the rules of intestacy – or even a will. If they were financially dependent on the person who died, or if they had been treated like the person’s own child, they may have a claim to some of the estate. But this is a long-winded process and is expensive and distressing for everyone. It is easier by far to write a will that says what you want it to say.
Parents will, for the most part, want to name their children as a beneficiary of their estate once they have died. But what happens if that child is a minor (under 18) at that time? Are they able to inherit?
The answer is that they are not able to receive their inheritance, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t name them as a beneficiary. It may sound strange, but as long as you include a caveat within the will that states that if the child is under 18 at the time of your death then their inheritance will go into trust, then there should be no problem.
But even if you don’t specify what type of trust you wish your child’s inheritance to go into, there will be an automatic trust arranged. This trust (over which you will have no say as it won’t have been arranged in advance) means that your executor will have the responsibility of the money, property, or other assets until your child becomes an adult at the age of 18.
If you set up a trust yourself, you can choose any age (over the age of 18) for your child to receive their inheritance. This can be useful if the sums are particularly large, and you feel that you would want your child or children to inherit only when they are more financially responsible, which often comes with age.
Sometimes it can be a good idea for the trustee of your child’s trust to also be the person named as their guardian. This means that everything can be looked after in one place, and there will be no confusion. However, it is perfectly possible to name different people for each role. As long as the information is written in your will, and discussed (ideally) with the people concerned beforehand, then everyone will understand what is to happen, and how.
Wills don’t only consist of listings of who you want to inherit what; wills are also a useful and impactful way to ensure that your wishes for what happens after your death are carried out – if at all possible. One of the most important pieces of information that you can include within your will is what should happen to your children (if you have any) after you die.
If their other parent is still alive, or if they are over the age of 18, this need not come into the will at all. But if your death would leave them an orphan who is under the age of 18, there will need to have been some provision made for them. The best way to make sure that they will continue to be cared for is to appoint a legal guardian.
If no guardian is included in the will then the courts will choose one for you. This may entail a court battle between different family sections (depending on the outcome), and could last for many years during which time your child or children will possibly be put into care. Not only that, but the judge may rule that a certain person will become the children’s guardian, and it might be someone you would never have wanted to do the job.
There are no set rules when it comes to choosing a guardian. You don’t, for example, have to choose a close family member such as a parent or sibling if you don’t feel that would be the right person to care for your child. Aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents are all eligible – as long as they understand what it takes to raise a child.
If you have no other family, or none of them are suitable to be your children’s guardian, then why not think of your friends? Good friends can be better guardians than family members sometimes, and can even have been closer than family.
There are no rules on who should or shouldn’t be guardians because it is an entirely subjective thing – the important part is that whoever is designated to look after your child or children has similar parenting values to you, and will bring the children up in a way you would be happy with. Not only will this mean that your values live on, but also that your child will feel more included, and won’t be additionally traumatised at a terribly difficult time.
If money concerns you, why not set up a trust for your children? Or name them as beneficiaries of your life insurance? The trust could even be left in the charge of the guardian, to use as is needed to ensure the child is happy and healthy, and then pass over to them when they become 18.
There are two other things that must be considered; even if the person or people you want to be guardians are perfect for the role, you need to ask a) whether your children like them and get on with them, or get on with their own children should they have any, and b) do they even want to be guardians? As much as they may adore your children, actually being responsible for them is a different matter and suddenly being confronted with the task on your death could be too much for them. Speak to them about it first, get their consent, and only then write it in your will – there will be so much upheaval for your children if you go ahead and choose them anyway, it’s just not worth doing.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can cause someone to decide to make a will. It’s one of those things that has been put off and put off, down on the to do list for another day. But every now and then something will happen that will bring writing a will right back to the forefront of the mind once more, only this time it’s followed by the determination to actually do something about it.
And it doesn’t have to be anything life changing that prompts this sudden need either.
A recent survey says that for one in five under 40 years olds it was the first grey hair that did it – that first grey hair sent them into a panic, made them think of their own mortality, and got them to finally write a will. It may seem strange, even a little silly, possibly somewhat vain, but however you feel (and maybe you even agree), the fact that they then went on to write a will is good enough. Wills are essential.
But it’s not just the greys that have forced people to realise just how necessary writing a will really is. Wrinkles do a similar job, as do unexplained pains in the back, knees, hips – anywhere associated with movement problems in the elderly. In fact, anything that makes us feel old, any reminder of how many years have passed (looking at childhood photographs, re-visiting old houses – even if we don’t go inside but simply drive by – and realising that the children of friends and relatives are children no more for example) can all have the same effect.
Apart from those things that make us feel old, big life changes can also prompt the need to write a will, and that’s as it should be. Marriage, having children and buying a house are three of the main happy ones, and the death of a friend or family member of around the same age is the big sad one. but even smaller things such as learning about inheritance tax and the problems it can cause can make people start to think. Will writing triggers are all around us.
When asked why they hadn’t made a will up to that point, most people responded with either that they hadn’t thought about it, or that they hadn’t had time. Others said it was because they had nothing to leave (were they sure about that?) or because they were simply too young to die. None of these are good reasons not to have written a will.
David Bowie's shocking death from cancer earlier this year on 10th January made the nation grieve. This chameleon of incredible music, this man who was so many different men and had lived so many different lives was gone – but his musical legacy will remain, and sometimes that's all someone as well known and well loved as that can ask for.
But it's not just Bowie's music that will be passed on. That music made him a fortune, and his estate was, in his death, worth in excess of $100 million.
Bowie's will states that his wife, Iman, and his two children would all share in his $100 million fortune. He also requested that his ashes were taken to Bali to be scattered over the beach and into the sea. Generously, Bowie also left $2 million to his assistant, Corinne Schwab, and another $1 million to Marion Skene, who was nanny to one of his children, and remained a good friend of the family.
Bowie's youngest child, his 15 year old daughter Alexandria, received 25% of the estate (the same as Bowie's 44 year old son Duncan from his previous marriage) as well as a house near Woodstock. It is not known how much the property on Little Tonshi Mountain is worth, but it is suggested that it is not the money that is of importance here – that instead, perhaps, there is a special significance for father and daughter about this home, and that is why Alexandria inherited it.
The remaining 50% of the estate is left to wife Iman. She also inherits their Manhattan apartment and other properties.
Bowie chose not to have a funeral in the traditional sense, but instead opted for a Buddhist ceremony in Bali, after which his ashes were scattered by his close family.