What is a will?

A will is a legal document. It gives instructions about who you want to give your money and belongings to when you die. People who get your money or possessions when you die are called your beneficiaries. Writing a will makes sure everything you leave goes to the people you want it to.

What you leave when you die is called your estate. This is made up of:

  • everything you own, including money, property and belongings
  • your share of anything you own jointly with someone else.

Anything you owe is taken off the value of your estate. For example, the value of a mortgage is taken off.

As well as instructions about money and belongings, your will can also include instructions about:

  • who you want to look after your children – this person is called a legal guardian
  • funeral plans
  • who you want to sort out your estate – this person is called an executor.

To write a will you must be at least:

  • 18 years old in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • 12 years old in Scotland.

Our booklet about making a will includes a step-by-step guide to help you write your will.

Why is it important to write a will?

Writing a will makes sure your wishes are followed after you die. It means that your loved ones will be provided for in the way that you want. It can also prevent them from having to make difficult decisions, or deal with financial problems. Such problems may happen if your wishes are not clear. You might find that writing you wishes in a will makes you less anxious about the future. A will can also be a way of remembering causes and organisations that are important to you.

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30 Nov 2019
This leaflet is a guide to making or updating your will. It is for anyone affected by cancer.

If you die before writing a will

If you die without writing a will, this is called dying intestate. There are laws about how your estate will be passed on. These are called the rules of intestacy. They say:

  • who should sort out your estate
  • who your estate should be passed on to.

If you die without writing a will, it can take much longer to deal with your estate. It may also mean your money and belongings will not go to the people you would have chosen.

What happens to your estate depends on your situation and which part of the UK you live in. The rules are complex.

To find out exactly what will happen to your estate if you die without a will, use the intestacy online tool at GOV.UK.

The rules usually favour a surviving husband, wife or civil partner, and children, but can involve others too:

  • If you have a husband, wife, or civil partner or have children

    If you have a husband, wife, civil partner, or children, your estate may be split between these people. This includes adopted children, but not stepchildren (unless you have adopted them).

  • If you do not have a husband, wife, civil partner or children

    If you do not have a husband, wife, civil partner or children, your estate may go to your parents, brothers or sisters (siblings) or more distant relatives. It depends on which part of the UK you live in. If you do not have any relatives, everything will go to the state.

  • If you have grandchildren

    If you have grandchildren when you die, but their parent (your child) has died, your grandchildren can claim their parent’s share of your estate.

  • If you have a partner but are not married

    If you have a partner, but you are not married, they have no legal right to inherit anything. This is true even if you have lived with a partner for many years. However, they may be able to apply to a court for a payment from your estate if they are dependent on you. Other relatives and friends can also do this.

  • If you live in Scotland

    The rules in Scotland are different, but your estate will also probably go to your closest relatives. For more information about legal rights in Scotland when there is no will, speak to a solicitor.

Finding a solicitor

It is a good idea to look around or ask for a few quotes to find the right solicitor for you.

Different law societies in the UK have online databases where you can search for a local wills solicitor:

You can also visit your local Citizens Advice and ask for a list of local solicitors.

Guardianship of young children

Writing a will means you can say who you want to look after any young children if you die. If they agree, this would give them legal rights and responsibilities for your child. This may apply to children under the age of:

  • 16 if you live in Scotland
  • 18 if you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Your child’s other parent has automatic legal responsibility for your child if:

  • you are married to them
  • you were married to them when your child was born
  • you are not married to them, but they are named on the birth certificate (and your child was born after 3 May 2006 in Scotland, and after 14 April 2002 in Northern Ireland).

In these cases, there is no need to name (appoint) each other as guardian in your will.

If you are separated from the other parent, they will usually become responsible for your child. This is unless it can be proved that they are unsuitable to look after your child. Even if you choose a different guardian in your will, the other parent can challenge (contest) this in court. You should discuss this with a solicitor.

You may want to consider who you would appoint as a legal guardian if something happened to you and the other parent. It is particularly important to appoint a guardian in your will if:

  • you are the only living parent
  • you are separated from the other parent
  • you are living with your partner, but they are not the other parent of your children you have children and stepchildren and would like the family to stay together
  • your child’s other parent lives outside the UK, and relocating the child would be an issue.

A step-parent does not get legal responsibility for a child automatically, even if you are married to them. If you choose guardians in your will, the court can consider your wishes when making their decision. It is not guaranteed that the court will select your chosen guardians. But having your wishes in your will it makes it much more likely.

If you die without a will

If both parents die without a will, the UK courts choose a guardian. This may not be the person you would have chosen. This may also be a long process, especially if more than one person wants to become guardian. The local council may take children into foster care until the court decides on a guardian.

If you own property jointly

You may own property jointly with one or more people. What happens to the property after you die depends on how it is owned. There are two main types of joint ownership.

Joint tenants (property with a survivorship destination)

If you are a joint tenant, your share of the property will go automatically to the other owners when you die. In Scotland, this is known as a property with a survivorship destination.

  • Property can be owned between two or more owners.
  • Property is always owned in equal proportions between joint tenants, except in Scotland. In Scotland, the owners can each own a different proportion.
  • If you die, your share of the property will be shared equally between the other owners.
  • You cannot leave your share of a property to someone else in your will.
  • Joint tenancy is often used by couples who own their home.
  • Joint bank and savings accounts are always owned in this way. Transferring money to a joint account is a simple way to make sure your partner can easily access it if you die.

Tenants in common (property without a survivorship destination)

If you are a tenant in common, your share of the property will not automatically go to the other owner or owners. It will form part of your estate. In Scotland, this is known as a property without a survivorship destination.

  • Property can be owned between two or more owners.
  • Property does not have to be owned equally. The owners can each own a different proportion.
  • If you die, you can leave your share of the property to someone else in your will.
  • If you don’t have a will, your share will be passed on according to the law.
  • Tenancy in common is typically used by relatives or friends who buy a property together.

Sorting out your estate

Your estate is everything you own, including money, property and belongings. If you write a will, you can choose who you want to sort out your estate. This person is called an executor. This is a big job and is often done by a solicitor. Or it can be done by somebody else that you trust.

If you die without a will, usually your next of kin is your executor. Your next of kin is usually your closest living family member or family members. For example, it may be your husband, wife or civil partner, or your grown-up children.

Here are some of the things an executor must do:

  • Get probate in order to divide your estate. This is called confirmation in Scotland. It is a legal document that shows the amount you owned and owed when you died and proves your will is valid.
  • Get letters of administration, if there is no will. This decides who will sort out your estate. A person given the legal power to do this if there is no will is called an administrator.
  • Find everything you owned at the time of your death, including any debts.
  • Report anything you owe to HMRC.
  • Pay any tax that is due, and any unpaid bills and other debts.
  • Identify your beneficiaries – these are the people who should get your estate.
  • Arrange the sale of assets such as property and other belongings, if needed.

Your executors can either do these things themselves or hire a solicitor to help.

For help sorting out an estate and paying tax, call the Probate and Inheritance Tax Helpline on 0300 123 1072. Or visit:

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance Tax is paid if your estate (your property, money and possessions) is worth more than £325,000 after your death. This amount is called the tax-free allowance. However, there is no tax on anything you leave to your husband, wife or civil partner, or on anything you leave to charity.

We have more information about Inheritance Tax.

Macmillan’s will-writing service

Macmillan has a list of organisations that can offer a discounted will-writing service. We also offer a free will-writing service at certain times of year. Visit macmillan.org.uk/willwriting to find out more. You do not have to leave a gift to Macmillan in your will to get a discount.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you can call our financial guides on 0800 808 00 00 for information on how to get a free will at any time of year.

There are several other ways Macmillan can support you to make or update your will. This includes helping you leave us a gift if you want to. For more information:

Updating your will

You may need to update your will if your situation changes, or if your wishes change.

The only way to make a change to your existing will is by making an official alteration called a codicil. This must be signed by the person who made the will and be witnessed in the same way. But the witnesses do not need to be the same as for the original will.

There is no limit on how many codicils you can add, but they are only suitable for small or simple changes. For example, you could add a codicil to change the executors or add a gift for a charity.

Many charities have codicil forms to make it easier to add a gift to your will. To order Macmillan’s codicil form, visit be.macmillan.org.uk.

If you need to make any major changes to your will, you should write a new one.

Whether you want to write a new will or make a codicil, it is important to get advice from a solicitor. They can help to make sure a new or updated will is still valid.

When should I update my will

In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, getting married or entering into a civil partnership cancels your existing will. So you will need to make a new one. This is unless your will specifically says that it takes a future wedding or civil partnership into account. In Scotland, getting married or entering into a civil partnership does not cancel your existing will.

If you get divorced or end a civil partnership, any will you made while married or in a civil partnership is still valid. However, in this case, you should review your will. , You may need to update your will to include:

  • any new children or grandchildren
  • any new partner you met since writing your will.

You may have left a gift in your will to your spouse or civil partner. But they may not get this if you get divorced or end your civil partnership.

You may also need to change your will if there are any changes in your finances.

For help with wills and planning your estate, or any other personal finance issues, contact our financial guides on 0808 808 00 00.

Funeral instructions

Arranging a funeral can be stressful for family or close friends if they do not know your wishes. If you tell your family and friends what you want, your funeral is much more likely to reflect your wishes. It may also be one less thing for your family or friends to worry about.

We have more information to help with planning your funeral.

How we can help

Macmillan Grants

If you have cancer, you may be able to get a Macmillan Grant to help with the extra costs of cancer. Find out who can apply and how to access our grants.

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