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.
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.
A man named Stephen Jackson has been found to have stolen almost one million New Zealand dollars from his dying mother. The man actually sold his parents’ house whilst his mother was in the process of writing her will – even though that will said that Ivy Jackson wanted to split the property between her three children. However, by the time she died the house had already been sold and it was too late to do anything about it.
Stephen Jackson then took a further $250,000 from his mother’s bank account after she passed away.
Only one of Mr Jackson’s siblings was living at the time of their mother’s death, and the High Court in New Zealand found in favour of that sibling, Raymond Jackson. It was found that Stephen and his wife Linda owed almost $1.1 million, plus interest, to the estate of his dead mother.
But how could this have happened in the first place?
In January 2014, Ivy Jackson suffered a stroke and was unable to return to her home. Knowing that she was very unwell, she proceeded to write a will which, two days later, was completed. The will stated that she wanted the house to be sold, and for the proceeds from the sale to be shared between her children equally. Everything that was left over would go to Stephen and Linda Jackson.
However, because Stephen had been made power of attorney after his mother’s stroke, he had already made arrangements to sell the house.
Ivy Jackson died one year later after spending 12 months in a nursing home. Stephen said that he had had to sell the house in order to pay for the home (and the payment for it does seem to have come from the proceeds of the house sale). However, Ivy had enough put into savings to pay for these fees without the need to sell the house at that time. And, despite some of the money being used for the care home, almost $600,000 was still unaccounted for when the case went to court.
On top of that, it was discovered that Stephen Jackson used his status as power of attorney to withdraw around $300,000 from a joint account that had been held by his mother and father.
And, although they were both named as executors in Ivy’s will, neither Stephen nor Linda actually executed it, and instead continued to make withdrawals from a variety of different accounts.
The couple did not attend the hearing and they cannot be contacted, although it is thought that they have since moved to Queensland. The case is therefore ongoing.
When someone dies, unless family were told beforehand, or it is easy to find in the house, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether someone even had a will, let alone where it might be.
The problem is that there isn’t a central database of all the wills made in the UK. There is the Central Probate Registry, but it is not compulsory to enter the details of your will there, and not many people do. This might be because very few people are actually aware that it exists.
If you want to know about someone’s will for any reason, the first person to ask should be the one who has organised the funeral. They should at least be able to determine whether there is a will or not, which will aid you in your search. If there is a will, they may even be able to tell you what it consists of, but they are under no legal obligation to do this.
Once probate has been issued, the will itself becomes public. Once this is the case, you can apply to the probate registry to obtain a copy of the will. If you are unsure when probate is due to be given, you can register through a standing search at the probate registry. One registered, the search (which is set up in the person’s name, their address, and their date of death) lasts for 6 months. If probate has not been issued in that time, you will need to set up another search.
In the past, the contents of someone’s estate was most likely to go to their children first, and other family members and friends second. A recent study by pension firm Royal London now shows that as much as £400 billion is set to skip a generation, and pass from grandparents to grandchildren instead.
Either this, or children are receiving inheritances from their parents, but are immediately passing it on to their children as they are seen to need it more (and it is often used for mortgage deposits, for example). The ‘sandwich’ generation of people between 45 and 64 are often relinquishing their claim to any inheritance, even if the grandchildren are not explicitly mentioned within the will.
But the amount of money left behind is decreasing as well. This is because grandparents are giving their children and grandchildren the money they need while they are still alive, thus reducing any inheritance left over.
The majority of Britain’s homes are owned by the older generation, with the younger generations renting from them. If the country is to re-establish its housing market, then these gifts or inheritances from grandparents could be the way to do it. The figures at the moment shows that 45 percent of ‘babyboomers’ (people born in the 50s and 60s) owned their own home by the time they were 25. In contrast, only 25 percent of ‘millennials’ (people born in the 80s and after) owned their own home by the same age.
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.
A recent survey carried out by the Cavell Nurses’ Trust showed that over two thirds of nursing staff don’t have a will. The charity supports nurses who are in financial difficulties or who are going through personal hardships, and the organisers of the survey were shocked to find that such a high number of nurses had not yet – or didn’t intend to – write their will.
Within the general population of the UK, the number of those who don’t have a will is at 53 percent compared to 64 percent of nurses.
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust intends to raise awareness of this facts through information in May, which is Make A Will month. The charity’s chair, Simon Knighton, said that he understood how busy a nurse’s life can be, and how working around the very ill, and seeing death on a regular basis, can put people off from wanting to think about such things when they finally do have some time off. However, he also understands that without a will it is the family left behind who will suffer, and so they are extremely important.
Some will writing businesses offer a discount for those in nursing, and it is always worth checking out beforehand.
In 2004, a woman named Melita Jackson left £486,000 to animal charities. Her daughter, Heather Ilott, took the will to court in order to get a share of this estate – the will did not initially feature her at all. The pair had fallen out after Ms Ilott had eloped at the age of 17. She went on to have a long and happy relationship, and five children with her husband. But Ms Jackson could never forgive her daughter for what she had done.
Eventually, after many months, the Court of Appeal agreed that Ms Ilott should receive one third of the estate.
What does this mean in terms in will writing and inheritance? The experts are predicting that this could mean that people will not be able to disinherit their children unless they give a detailed reason why. Simply missing them out of the will without any additional documentation to explain why could mean that, if the children take the will to court, they will be given part of the estate. It will make it much easier for those who have been disinherited to challenge the wills of their parents.
The judge in this case ruled that Ms Ilott should have one third of the estate as her mother had not left her ‘reasonable provision’.
People love to collect things. It seems to be a part of human nature, and many of us love to have a small collection of interesting objects. It could be anything from stamps to postcards to action figures… Whatever catches your eye really. But for most of us, our collections are little more than something to do. Something of interest. And if we do decide to include them in our will, it is not usually for the beneficiaries to gain any monetary value from them.
But this is not always the case.
Bob Postal collected toy soldiers. His collection spanned 30 years, and he had more than 10,000 when he died in September 2015.
He left the collection to his wife, Carole, who, although fond of the items because they had been Bob’s, and because they had always been a part of their life together, did not know what to do with them. It is likely that she would simply have left them in their boxes and cabinets if a friend had not phoned her up to tell her about a news progamme she had just seen.
The programme had been called ‘Strange Inheritance’, and it was all about a man who left a collection of toy soldiers, much like Bob Postal’s, to his family. The family wanted to sell them which, as it turned out, would be a good idea because they were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Carole Postal wrote to the programme herself to tell them about her collection, and she was featured on an episode entitled ‘Toy Soldier Story 2’. She told viewers that when she and Bob had first got married he had insisted that they buy an apartment with two bedrooms rather than the one they needed. When Carole asked why, Bob told her about his toy soldier collection. Carole said she never minded as long as ‘the guys’ (as Bob called them) remained in the soldier room.
Postal’s collection has been valued at over $300,000, and experts say it is one of the biggest collections in the world. But Carole does not want to sell them, and has placed half of the collection in the New York Historical Society. The other half is in a children’s museum in Rochester, New York.
Although the figures are getting better, there is still a large proportion of the adult population who do not have a will – it’s around two thirds. And this can cause major problems when they die because their estate may not be given to the person they would have wanted it to be given to.
It can be stressful for those left behind, and it can cause financial issues too.
So why is it that only one third of people in the UK have wills?
The main reason, a new study by NS&I has discovered, is that it’s because no one likes to talk about death. It’s still a big taboo. And that taboo means that people simply aren’t comfortable when it comes to discussing their own demise, or other people’s, and especially when it is linked to money or inheritance.
As well as not writing a will, these adults don’t have any plans at all for when they die. That includes not having plans for looking after the relatives they leave behind – both elderly and children. This is how scared the UK is of death; even if it going to affect others negatively, people would rather not think about it at all.
Around 46 percent of adults in the UK are not happy about discussing their death with their loved ones, and a third say that they won’t discuss it with anyone at all. They would just prefer not to think about it. Or they think they are too young to consider writing a will. The problem is, death can come at any time for anyone, and having a will in place ‘just in case’ will stop any potential arguments after death.