About this series of articles
Making a will is rather like assembling flat-pack furniture, in that it looks impossibly difficult at the start, but when you have identified all the pieces, everything fits into place.
This guide will hopefully help you put together the framework (without the difficult to understand pictures that always come in the instructions for flat-pack furniture), so that when you use a template containing the legal wording, the whole document slots together with both the legal and practical effect.
The first thing we suggest you do when making a will is to make a number of lists. From your lists, you'll be able to clarify your intentions, and you may discover and resolve complications of which you hadn't been aware before the process.
List 1: Possible executors, long term trustees and guardians of your children
Choosing the people that will carry out your will (known as your executors) can be difficult. They obviously need to be alive when you die; and they need to be people you can trust to divide your estate in the way that you would choose.
You can appoint up to four executors and as few as one. Most people appoint two or three.
Commonly, close family members are chosen as executors perhaps in conjunction with a solicitor or accountant. They should be reasonably likely to outlive you and willing and able to take on the responsibility. If they live in different countries, or are very busy with their own affairs, they are unlikely to carry out your wishes in the way in which you might want them to do.
Your executors usually become the trustees of any trusts created by your will (unless you specify otherwise). You might want to choose separate trustees if you use professional executors or if you wish the guardians of your children to control their inheritance.
We have an article on how to choose executors, trustees and guardians that discusses who to choose and potential pitfalls.
List 2: What you might have in your estate
Estate is the legal term for your possessions, financial assets and debts. You should list what your estate might contain when you die and estimate a value for each.
Consider whether you have any assets that might increase in value after your death, and whether you have any that produce income.
By doing this, you'll be able to consider which possessions you want to pass to specific people, how much in terms of value you give to each beneficiary, and what might be left to be sold, with the money distributed as you wish.
You can be as specific as you like in your will, so you could bequeath a specific painting to a nephew, let certain beneficiaries divide a collection of assets as they like (such as your antique coin collection), or simply give someone a share of the value of your estate.
The following is an aide-memoire:
- personal possessions: those of value such as furniture, art and jewellery, and those with sentimental value, such as heirlooms, books and letters.
- your house or flat: you will need to consider how you own your property and whether anyone will have a claim on it automatically when you die.
- other real property, such as a car.
- shares in private companies and business partnership interests
- stocks and shares in public companies and other financial instruments
- cash: in banks, building societies or elsewhere
- intellectual property, such as music compositions, book rights or designs
We have another article that covers what you can leave in a will in greater detail.
List 3: Beneficiaries
This is usually an easy list to compile. It comprises the name, age and address of everyone to whom you might leave a gift of some sort.
Your beneficiaries might include:
- your husband, wife or civil partner
- an unmarried partner
- your children
- other family members
- friends, or carers
- a charity
Since your will aims to control to whom your estate is gifted, you should consider to whom your beneficiaries might pass on your estate. A gift to the person you ultimately want to benefit may be preferable to a gift to his or her parents or guardians, especially if the parents or guardians have families from more than one relationship.
You may like to read our article about keeping an inheritance in the family.
Depending on who your beneficiaries are, and what you leave, you might need to set up a trust. To find out how trusts work, read our article on will trusts.
List 4: Possible problems
Think next about possible complications and issues. Some will be common, some unique to you. So here we give you examples only:
- interests after your re-marriage, for example, if you have two families. You may want to read about the effect of marriage and divorce.
- how your business will be kept going, at least until it can be sold.
- issues of trust with beneficiaries: if you think the person may squander or misuse their inheritance.
- age of inheritance for children: 18, 21 or older, and what or how much when?
- how to manage unborn children and grandchildren.
- how will your children be brought up if your spouse and you should both die in an accident.
- whether any gift is likely to be contested after your death.
- arranging your affairs so as to pay the proper amount of inheritance tax and not over-pay through ignorance or carelessness.
Even just reading about these possibilities and writing lists will have given you a pretty good idea of what you want.
The structure of your will
Most wills, and all Net Lawman wills, follow this form:
- Name of testator who revokes former wills. For more information on cancelling previous wills, see our article about cancelling a previous will.
- Appointment of executors and trustees
- Appointment of guardians
- Specific gifts of money or possessions (termed legacies and bequests), with no deductions for inheritance tax. You can make specific gifts to your residuary beneficiaries too, of course.
- Residuary estate all to one or more people or to executors on trust. If the executors take it, they change hats to become trustees unless you specify otherwise.
- Trust provisions: what the trustees may or may not do with your money in managing your estate. You can be as restrictive or open as you wish. You can leave them to multiply your wise investments or to sell your jewels at a pittance.
- Date and signature with two witnesses. We have an article on witnessing and signing a will.
We recommend that you read about what you can leave in your will next.
We provide some of our more straightforward wills (likely to be suitable for most people) absolutely free with no catches or conditions. Just visit our library and choose from the list of last will and testament templates. We offer nine documents in total that together cover thousands of possible variations of wishes. There will be one to suit your situation. If you are in doubt as to which to choose, our article on which will template to use will help you to decide exactly which suits you best.