A will makes sure that everything you leave when you die goes to the people you want it to.
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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.
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 your 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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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.
It can be difficult to choose from the hundreds of solicitors available but it's a good idea to look around or ask for a few quotes to find the right solicitor for you.
You can use our Free Will Service to help you find a legal professional to write your will either online, through the post, over the phone or a video call, face-to-face at home or in branch with a solicitor.
Or, if you'd rather not use our service, we recommend contacting the Law Society to find a list of solicitors near you.
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.
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.
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 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 has partnered with a panel of trusted will writing providers to offer you the chance to write or update your will for free. To register for your free will, visit www.macmillan.org.uk/freewill
There is no obligation to leave a gift in your will to Macmillan to be eligible for a free will as part of Macmillan Free Will Service.
You may need to update your will if your situation changes, or your wishes change.
Once your will is written it’s a good idea to review it every five years or so and after any major life changes, such as:
- marriage or divorce
- birth of a child or grandchild
- moving house
- your executor is no longer suitable
- the value of your estate has changed.
It is important to get advice from a solicitor when you are considering updating your will, they can help 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.
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.