This is one of a series of articles about making a will.
It is entirely possible to write your own legally binding will using free resources. This article explains some of your options.
Often people don't make a will themselves because it seems to complicated. We covered some of the meanings of terms in a will in the last article.
The advantages of making a will
Everyone should make a will before they die. We explain the reasons why making a will is important in detail in that article, but in summary, you should do so:
- to control who inherits your money and possessions
- to nominate who makes sure your wishes are carried out; and
- to name who will look after your young children, if you have any and if you die before they reach adulthood.
You might also be able to structure your will so that you reduce the amount of inheritance tax paid on your estate.
Note though, that for most people, no inheritance tax will be paid because the value of the estate is lower than the starting point - the threshold - at which tax is paid.
So why don't many people make a will?
Many people fail to make a will and die intestate. Research has shown that the reason for not doing so is most often the cost. Solicitors' fees for will writing can be expensive. However, there are a number of ways that you can have a will written for free in the UK.
Even if you've made a will in the past, you should regularly review your wishes. The Law Society advises that you review your will regularly and update it every five years. We think that is good advice because 'life events' usually occur at least this often. You might get married, divorced, or remarried. Your financial circumstances might change. You or members of your family might have children, nephews and nieces or grandchildren that you want to include in your will.
Using a free will writing service, you might be able to keep your will 'up to date' without cost.
Options for free wills
It is perfectly possible to write a legally valid will yourself, but free templates and free will writing services (and most other low cost options) are usually only suitable for people with uncomplicated estates. However, some allow for more options than others.
Before writing your will, we advise that you read around the subject. Net Lawman provides a number of articles that should be useful.
What to check before using a free template
When you find a free will online, check:
- that it is suitable for use in the UK. Many free wills online are written for residents of the USA or other countries. It is usually apparent from the wording at the beginning of the will, or at the end. (Note that wills under Scottish law are valid in England and Wales, and wills under English and Welsh law are valid in Scotland).
- that it is clear that the provider is suitably qualified to write the will. Qualifications may include being or having been a solicitor, or being a member of a trade association of will writers. A good indicator that the will template has been written by someone who knows the law on wills is that guidance on how to complete the template is provided.
- that you understand exactly what the template does. Few free templates come with help notes. If yours doesn't explain the document in detail, find a document that you understand (one written in plain English).
Why free online will templates get bad press
There are many sites on the Internet that discourage writing a will yourself using a free template. There are two reasons.
The first is that there is a possibility that if you write your own will, you will not write one that either is valid, or that reflects your true wishes.
For example, certain processes must be followed when signing a will (called attestation) in order for the will to be valid. There have been cases where people who have written their own will haven't followed the right process for attestation, the will has been later contested, and then declared invalid by a judge. However, the number of cases in which this has happened is relatively small compared to the number of people who have written their own will.
Having a solicitor write your will doesn't reduce the possibility that someone will feel hard done by when you die and will contest your will. But if you think that there will be arguments (for example, over your capacity to express your true wishes, or over the validity of the will), you might want to seek the advice of a solicitor.
If you have little of value to pass on, or if you are just giving money to your husband or wife or adult children, estate planning advice might be less important to you. You may not need to know how to save tax or how to set up a trust fund. A free will template might be suitable.
But if you have families from earlier relationships, assets valued above the tax threshold, children under 18 or a business, you might need estate planning advice and a more complicated will.
The second reason why will templates receive bad press is that will writing is big business and that there is a financial incentive for solicitors to promote their paid services over free services. A little fear is a big motivator to use a more expensive service.
A free will template is a great way to start thinking about what you want and how your will should be structured.
Free will templates from Net Lawman
Net Lawman offers three free will templates. We estimate that these should be suitable for 60% of the UK population.
We also offer six other paid templates for more complicated estates.
Each template comes with extensive help as to how to complete it, worth reading even if you decide not to use the template.
We've spent a long time developing our range of wills. In the process, we've assessed what our competitors offer (both their free templates and their paid ones). We've designed our range so that our collection of free will templates include:
- a simple will (similar to most other free will templates available)
- a template that includes options to make specific gifts and that is more suitable if the beneficiaries are under 18 (features we've found only in paid templates); and
- a template that splits an estate between two different parties and that gives great control over trust powers (features not usually found in templates, free or paid).
We hope that you won't find better free (or inexpensive) templates anywhere else.
Personal legal services provided as part of a package of insurance or banking services
The law regarding who could offer legal services has changed recently. Previously, only a firm of solicitors could practice. Now, other companies can offer legal advice provided that they meet certain criteria. It is mainly financial services companies who have taken advantage of this change, adding a basic level of personal legal services to their products in order to offer a more 'valuable' service overall.
If you have a premium bank account, or take out a certain level of insurance, you may be eligible for free will writing services.
These services take several different approaches. You should check which one your bank or insurance company uses, and then decide whether it suits your circumstances.
Approach 1: In-house will writing
Some financial services companies have their own lawyers (employees) write a free will for you. Those lawyers are likely to specialise in will writing. They could be based in an office local to you (so that you can go and see them as you would a normal solicitor) or they could be located in a centralised office that you can only telephone. The advantage of using someone in a local office is that you are far more likely to get a will that does what you want. Instructing someone by telephone is more difficult and you might not receive good estate planning advice.
The advantages of using an in-house lawyer are:
- that the quality of draftsmanship in your will is likely to be good (although having a solicitor write any sort of legal agreement doesn't guarantee that there won't be problems at some point)
- you should receive good advice, and
- they may be able to write a will for free that achieves the outcome you want.
But bear in mind that financial services companies work to processes, and that your will might be based on a template even if a lawyer completes that template for you.
Financial services companies might also try to persuade you to let them to manage the process of distributing your estate. While this costs you nothing while you are alive, banks are notorious for charging high fees for this type of work and may take a long time to do the job. Don't feel compelled to use their "executor" service just because they are writing your will for free.
Approach 2: Outsourced to a local solicitor
Your bank or insurance company might offer a free will writing service, provided you choose an approved provider. An approved solicitor is likely to have been vetted by the bank, so is likely to be experienced. He is also likely to be able to give you some good advice about how to structure your will.
However, he will be working for a fixed, low fee and you might find that he tries to write your will as quickly as possible in order to keep his costs down. His arrangement might limit him to writing only certain types of will (for example, those that don't place assets in trust). Alternatively, he may give you a discount, and not be completely free.
Approach 3: Access to online, web-based software
In this case, your bank or insurance company subscribes to will writing software provided by a third party, and perhaps also 'checks' the will produced.
This is no different to using any web-based software yourself, except that the charge is picked up by the bank.
Although a checking service might seem to provide assurance that your will is correct, it is unlikely that a human checking a will produced by software will be doing anything more than checking for spelling mistakes. The software should provide legally 'correct' documents.
The only disadvantage of using online software is that the software might not be able to handle complex situations. You may need to check with a solicitor that your will achieves what you want in the best possible way.
Some charities offer free will writing services. Offering such services costs them as much as it would cost you (or nearly as much). But they hope that you will feel obliged to leave them a bequest (money) in your will, and that the amount you leave will be more than the cost. So, although free to write, there might be a 'cost' that you hadn't thought about. However, you are under no legal obligation to leave them any money.
Charities tend to outsource will writing to a local solicitor and pay his costs. They do so through a partner organisation that finds and vets the solicitor. Like an outsourced solicitor working for a bank, the solicitor you use is likely to be acting on a fixed fee basis, so may not offer anything more than a basic will unless you agree to pay for the cost of the additional work.
The solicitor may also try to persuade you to let him to act as an executor, which could be expensive for your beneficiaries when you die, even if there is no immediate cost.
So that costs are recouped as quickly as possible, free wills are usually limited to people who are over 65. Some charities also impose other restrictions (such as income).
Because there is a high demand for free will writing services, the charities often limit the number that they agree to have written (either by running the offer during certain months only, or by limiting the volume of wills they agree to pay for). You'll need to act fast to get on a scheme. However, there are a large number of schemes available, so with persistence, you should be able to find one that accepts you.
Some trade unions offer free will writing services. The model is very similar to the one that charities use. The union hopes that by offering the service for free, you will leave them an amount of money greater than the cost of writing the will.
Of course, you have to be a member of the union to qualify, and often there are other eligibility criteria (such as age or financial circumstances).
You may be limited as to who writes your will. Sometimes the union uses an in-house solicitor (with experience), but sometimes the choice of local solicitors may be limited.
Community legal advice
People on a low income and who are over 70 years of age, disabled, have a disabled child or are a single parent can apply for legal aid from the government. This legal aid includes a professional, free will writing service.
See this page for more information as to whether you are eligible.