Wills Definition: What Are They and When Should You Have One?
Having a Will might be the last thing on your mind. But a word from a friend or family member, an advert on TV or a dramatic life event may suddenly make you wonder if you should have one.
But what exactly is a Will? What should you include in one? Is it just a list of your current possessions and assets, or is there more involved?
1) Summary in 30 Seconds
- A Will is a legal document that contains your wishes for who you would like to inherit your estate (all your money, possessions and assets) after your death.
- Wills can also name Guardians for any minor children, state your funeral plans or name who you would like to care for your pets.
- There are several different types of Will depending on your circumstances. For example, couples can have Mirror Wills (identical Wills) made
2) Definition of a Will
Simply put, a Will is a legal document that states your instructions for who you want to inherit from your estate after you die, and what you want them to inherit. This could be property, assets, personal possessions and money – basically everything you own that can be passed on to another person.
A legally binding Will takes the form of a physical paper document, signed by you and witnessed by two people. By following the necessary legal requirements, you ensure your Will is binding and must be adhered to after your death. The law of England and Wales gives people great freedom to leave their estate to whomever they wish. This enables people to not only make provisions for family and friends, but also charities and other organizations they wish to support.
A great number of people die every year in the U.K. without any sort of valid Will in place. When this happens, the deceased’s estate is declared Intestate. As they have not prepared a Will that states their wishes for whom is to inherit from their estate, The Rules of Intestacy are applied instead. This means the entire estate goes to the next-of-kin, in most cases the deceased’s spouse or civil partner, or any children. If there is no next-of-kin, the estate will go to the Crown.
3) Why Do I Need a Will?
If you have little in the way of possessions or assets, perhaps having just entered the work-force or are renting, you might think you don’t need a Will yet. Having a Will is not just about deciding what happens to your property and possessions after you die. There are other important things that a Will covers, and might affect you.
- If you have children, you can name a Guardian for them. One of the things you can include in your Will is who you want to look after your children in the event that you and their other parent were to die while they are still minors. No parent wants to contemplate such a horrible eventuality. Neither would any parent want to leave open the possibility that we hadn’t made a provision for the care of their children if the worst was to happen. If you don’t arrange a Guardian for your children, the courts will have to decide. The person they may choose might not be who you would have wanted, and if there are any complications your child may have to spend time in temporary foster care.
- You can make funeral plans. Funeral wishes in a Will are not legally binding, but they can be a real help for family and loved ones making preparations for you. It can cause a lot of additional stress on top of an already painful situation to have to make many decisions regarding your funeral and what kind of service or memorial you would have wanted. You can relieve a lot of that stress by including clear and concise funeral instructions for what you do or don’t want. This is especially important if you have strong feelings on the matter, such as whether it would be faith-based or non-religious service.
- You can include your pets. To many of us, pets are our family. Just like any loved one, we would want to make sure that they are cared for properly once we’re gone. Under the law of England and Wales, pets are classed as possessions. This means you can leave them to someone in your Will, along with a money gift to cover any care expenses. This is another weight off your mind that precious pets will not end up in an animal shelter.
- You can make a Trust. A Will does not just have to be for the distribution of your assets and possessions immediately following your death.
- Alternatively, you can have a Will Trust. A Trust enables you to leave someone a gift, usually money, with more specific instructions. For example, you might want to help pay for a niece or nephew’s university fees. Or, you might be the carer or family member of a vulnerable adult who needs assisted living costs paid. In a Will Trust you can appoint a “Trustee” to release any funds held at the time and circumstances that you have stipulated, ensuring that they are used for this specific purpose.
4) When Should I Get a Will Made?
A Will is useful to have at many stages of life, regardless of our financial circumstances. Wills can also be changed or replaced entirely if they become out-dated or if your wishes change. Depending on your circumstances, a Will could be very simple. For example, if you are a young person, perhaps recently married but with no children. If you are older, perhaps with a more complicated family set-up or financial situation, your Will will probably need to be more detailed.
Despite their importance, many people put off having a Will made well into their 50s and 60s. As we’ve seen already, this is a risky decision to make. However, having a Will made at any age is better than dying with no valid Will at all.
Instead of fixating on the right time to have a Will made, start with quantifying your assets and possessions, any provisions you need to make for your dependents and other wishes you have that are important to you. Even if they amount to just a few small things, have a simple Will made as soon as possible. When things change in the future, you can revisit it and make amendments if necessary.
5) Types of Wills Available
Not all Wills are alike – there are several different kinds that serve different purposes. Once you start researching Wills, it’s easy to get confused with the different options available. It can make getting a Will look like a more complicated task than it actually is. However, it’s important to know a little bit about the different kinds of Wills, as they might be of benefit to you.
- A Simple Will. Definition: This is the most basic kind of Will, for those who have very straightforward estates. For example, if you have a modest amount of possessions or assets, or if you intend to leave everything to one person only. Despite their relative simplicity, it is still beneficial to have this written by a Solicitor, so that you can receive sufficient legal advice and ensure the Will itself is drafted properly.
- Will Trusts. Definition: As previously explained, Will Trusts are Wills that have a Trust in them as well. If you want to be able to distribute your estate or money in a certain way or a specific time, you can do so with a Will Trust. They not only give you more control over your estate, but they can also serve as a protection from some of the common problems that frequently occur around inheritances, such as the remarriage of a surviving spouse, or the bankruptcy or divorce of a beneficiary.
- Mirror, or Joint Wills. Definition: Mirror Wills (also called Joint Wills) are Wills for married couples, civil partners or long-term unmarried partners. They are essentially two separate but identical Wills, whereby each party leaves their entire estate to the other, with the surviving spouse usually leaving the estate to any children on their own death. Mirror Wills are simple and quite cost-effective, but they can be flawed too. With people living longer and remarriage becoming more and more common, they do not protect an estate from changing circumstances that can occur after one spouse dies. Seek the advice of a solicitor who can advise you on whether Mirror Wills are the best fit for you, and what you can do to best protect your estate long-term.
- Mutual Wills. Definition: Another option for couples that can provide more protection are Mutual Wills. Like Mirror Wills, these are identical Wills in which both parties leave their estate to each other. However, they also contain a clause which states that neither party can revoke their Will without the other party’s agreement. This helps prevent an estate from leaving the family “side-ways”, for example through subsequent remarriage, or from one party changing their own Will without their spouse’s knowledge or consent.
- Living Wills. Definition: Living Wills can be confused with a person’s “Last Will and Testament”, but they actually have nothing to do with it. It is actually a legal document in which you can state your wishes for medical treatment you want to refuse, in the event that you are incapacitated or unconscious and cannot communicate your preferences anymore. They can be a very important tool if you have strong views or feelings about treatments or procedures you don’t want to have. A solicitor can help you draft this document so that it clearly states your wishes and will thus be legally binding to a doctor or medical professional who is caring for you.
5) Will Terms Explained
Legal jargon can be confusing and easily overwhelming. This is especially the case if you are attempting to write your own Will, or are using an online template or form. While it’s not necessary to every single term’s definition, it can still be really helpful.
Wills use specific language, phrasing and jargon which is then interpreted by the courts a certain way. Making a mistake or omission in phrasing or use of a word could have catastrophic results for your Will, potentially making gifts void or making your Will invalid altogether.
Despite the proliferation of online tools to help you make your own Will, we recommend seeking out the help of a Solicitor who can properly advise you and has the legal expertise to draft a valid and applicable Will.