What is a will?

A will is a legal document. It gives instructions about who you want to give your money and belongings (possessions) to when you die. People who get your money or possessions when you die are called your beneficiaries. 

Writing a will makes it clear who and where you would like your money and belongings to go to when you die.

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

  • Everything you own, including money, property and belongings.
  • Your share of anything you own jointly with someone else (unless you own a property as joint tenants. See below).

Anything you owe is taken off the value of your estate, after any debts are repaid. For example, the value of a mortgage would be taken off.

Your will can also include instructions about:

  • who you want to carry out the instructions in your will – this person is called an executor.
  • who you want to look after your children – this person is called a legal guardian.
  • your funeral plans.

Why is it important to write a will?

Writing a will means your wishes are followed after you die. It means your loved ones are provided for in the way that you want. It can also prevent them from having to make difficult decisions, or deal with financial problems. 

You might find that writing your 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.

Macmillan Free Will Service

Macmillan works with trusted will-writing providers across the UK to offer a Free Will Service.

You can register for your free will, and find more information on our partners and will writing methods. You can also contact us on 0800 8048 490.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you can call our financial guides for free on 0808 808 0000 for information on all the options on how to write your will.

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 for free on 0808 808 0000.

Booklets and resources

Making a will

To make a will you must be at least:

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

Making a will is not as expensive or difficult as you might think. But it is a legal document and must be prepared properly. It is best to use a solicitor. They will be able to help with the wording in the document. This ensures all legal processes are followed, as even small mistakes can make a will invalid. A solicitor will also make sure your wishes are clear and that they are carried out exactly as you want.

This is particularly important if your will is complicated. This might be the case if:

  • you own a property with someone who is not your husband, wife or civil partner
  • you have young children
  • you have children with a previous partner
  • you want to leave money to someone who cannot care for themselves
  • you own property abroad
  • you own a business.

You can make a will in person or over the phone with a solicitor. Some solicitors have a form that you can fill in and send online or through the post.

After your meeting or phone call with a solicitor, they should arrange a follow-up appointment with you. This is to check your will has been written the way you want it.

You will then need to sign it with 2 witnesses present, or 1 witness if you live in Scotland. The witnesses must also sign the will for it to be valid. Your witness cannot be 1 of your beneficiaries, or someone who is married to 1 of your beneficiaries.

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

If you die without 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 making a will, it can take much longer and cost more 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 also involve others.

  • 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. This 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 or in a civil partnership

    If you have a partner, but you are not married or in a civil partnership, they have no legal right to inherit anything. This is true even if you have lived with a partner for many years. But 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 and die without making a will

    The rules in Scotland are different, but your estate will also probably go to your closest relatives.

    In more complex situations, you might need to speak to a solicitor about legal rights in Scotland when there is no will.

The intestacy online tool at GOV.UK can help you to understand what will happen to your estate if you die without a will.

Sorting out your estate

If you make 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 will sort out your estate. 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. It is usually the person most entitled to inherit from your estate.

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 proves that 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.

It can be helpful to keep all your financial documents in a safe place and tell someone where this is. This can make it easier for your executors to find all the information they need after you have died.

Getting probate or confirmation

Unless your estate is very small, it cannot be given to your beneficiaries until probate has been granted. In Scotland, this is called confirmation. It is a legal document that shows the amount you owned and owed when you died.

Your executors’ names will be on the document. This allows them to sell or transfer your estate, so that it can be distributed according to your will. If you do not have a will, your estate will be distributed according to the rules of intestacy. These rules say:

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

If the estate is straightforward, getting probate or confirmation may only take a few weeks. But if the estate is more complicated, it can take many months, or even years.

When probate or confirmation is not needed

Some money and belongings can go straight to your beneficiaries without waiting for probate or confirmation. This might happen if:

  • the estate is made up of cash below a certain limit and personal belongings only
  • money or property are held jointly.

The following are usually not included in your estate, if you have chosen who should receive them:

  • a payout from life insurance
  • a lump sum or income from a pension scheme – this would also not be included if the trustees of the pension scheme have the power to make payments to your dependents.

The following will usually go straight to your beneficiaries after your death, even if probate or confirmation is needed for your estate:

  • your pension, if you have completed a pension nomination form – this must be an official legal document
  • a life insurance policy, if it has been put into trust.

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

Finding a solicitor

There are organisations that can help you find a solicitor. It is a good idea to 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 in England, Scotland and Wales and Advice NI in Northern Ireland 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 gives 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 or in a civil partnership 
  • you were married to them or were in a civil partnership when your child was born
  • you are not married to them or in a civil partnership, but they are named on the birth certificate and your child was born after 1 December 2003 in England and Wales or 3 May 2006 in Scotland – if you live in Northern Ireland, contact your local Advice NI for up-to-date information on this.

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 very 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 1 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 might own property jointly with 1 or more people. There are 2 different ways that you can do this:

  • Joint tenants. In Scotland this is called property with a survivorship destination.
  • Tenants in common. In Scotland this is called property without a survivorship destination.

What happens to the property after you die depends on the type of joint ownership you have.

Joint tenants (property with a survivorship destination)

If you have this type of joint ownership, your share of the property goes automatically to the other owners when you die.

With this type of joint ownership:

  • property can be owned between 2 or more people
  • property is always owned in equal proportions between joint tenants, except in Scotland, where they 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.

Tenants in common (property without a survivorship destination)

If you have this type of joint ownership, your share of the property does not automatically go to the other owner or owners when you die. It forms part of your estate.

With this type of joint ownership:

  • property can be owned between 2 or more people
  • property does not have to be owned in equal proportions – 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 do not have a will, your share is passed on according to the law.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance Tax may need to be paid when you die if the value of your estate is above £325,000. This is called the tax-free allowance or nil-rate band. It is set by the government and can change.

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.

Updating your will or writing a new one

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 signing something called a codicil. A codicil is an official alteration to your will. You need to sign a codicil and get it witnessed in the same way as witnessing a will. 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 to a will, 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.

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

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

When should I update my will or make a new one?

In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, getting married or entering into a civil partnership cancels your existing will. Unless your will specifically states that it takes a future wedding or civil partnership into account, you will need to make a new will. 

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. But if you have left a gift in your will to your husband, wife or civil partner, they may not receive this. This applies in all parts of the UK.

If you get divorced or end a civil partnership, you should review your will as it may need updating.

You may also need to update your will to include:

  • any new children or grandchildren
  • any new partner
  • any changes in your finances.

Our financial guides can give you guidance and information on wills and estate planning. Contact them on 0808 808 0000. But if your will needs updating, it is always a good idea to get help from a solicitor.

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.

Some people choose not to have a funeral service. Having a direct cremation means there is no funeral service, and no-one present at the crematorium. This is a less expensive option, but there are other reasons to have this. It allows people to choose their own way of remembering a loved one and is usually followed by a celebration of life or memorial service. This is not held at a crematorium or church, and can take place at any time.

Cemeteries may also offer a direct burial option without any religious ceremony or service beforehand.

Choosing a funeral director

You may find choosing a funeral director difficult if there are several in the area where you live. If you have had to plan a funeral in the past, you might choose a director you have used before. If you have not, it is best to choose one that you know has a high standard of practice. The following organisations can advise you if a funeral director offers a high standard of support:

You do not need to use a funeral director. But it can be hard to arrange a funeral at such a distressing time. The Natural Death Centre has information about arranging a funeral without a funeral director.

Pre-payment plans

Funerals can be expensive. You may want to pay for your funeral in advance with a funeral pre-payment plan. You can find out more from:

It is best to research prices first. Make sure you know what services are included in the price, as these can vary.

With a pre-payment plan:

  • you can arrange and pay for your own or someone else’s funeral in advance
  • you can pay for it in full or in instalments to the plan provider or a funeral director
  • there are rules to protect your money until it is needed.

Before you buy a funeral plan, you should check what the total cost will be. You should also check what will be included in the plan, to make sure you are happy with it.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) now regulates firms that provide and arrange pre-paid funeral plans.

If you have a funeral plan, or are thinking about buying a new one, check the list of funeral plan providers on the FCA website first.

We have more information to help with planning your funeral.

About our information

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by: Amanda South, Service Manager, Macmillan Financial Guidance; and Louise Dinsdale, Service Knowledge Specialist, Macmillan Financial Guidance.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 01 June 2023
Next review: 01 June 2026
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

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