In spring, we may be more drawn to thinking about births rather than deaths but they’re both important life events to plan for.

And the one document that links the two together is a will.

It’s something many of us don’t think about until much later in life, or indeed at all. In fact, some 60% of people pass away without having a will in place.

But it could be an important legal document to have in place when we have significant assets or after a major change in our circumstances.

So for this Focus, I’m going to look at the basics of wills – when you might need them, what should be included and how much they cost.

Do you really need a will?

“There are many, many good reasons to have a will in place, not least because it affords you and your loved ones the peace of mind that everything is taken care of, but because it allows you to take control of a number of different elements,” says Jane Sutherland, partner and specialist wills and probate solicitor at Nelsons.

Who inherits what is just a small part of a will. According to Sutherland, you could also set out things like who the executor of your estate is, appoint guardians of young children and establish trusts for children’s inheritance, including at what age they can have access to the money.

A will can also help to clarify things when there are no clear provisions in law, for example in the case of cohabiting couples.

Alex Sealy, partner and head of wills, trusts and probate at Slater Heelis, explains: “When people die without one, rules of intestacy come into action.

“For couples who aren’t married or in a civil partnership, under these rules, they have no right to inherit from their partner when there is no will in place.

“The myth that people who have lived or been together for a longer period of time are entitled to more is just not true. Legal rights for cohabiting couples are the same whether they have lived together for one year or one decade.”

This can be especially complicated when there are children from a current or previous relationship involved.

In certain circumstances, a will can also be used to structure assets to take advantage of inheritance tax breaks so that’s also worth bearing in mind.

When do you need a will and how often should they be updated?

“Simply put, everyone who has assets and is over the age of 18 should put a will in place and these should be reviewed every three to five years or if circumstances change,” says Sutherland.

Examples of this can include marriages, divorces, births, new inheritance, acquisition of a significant asset, when someone on your will dies or if you’ve fallen out with them. In some cases, for example if you have assets in another country, you may need a separate will for that country.

A note on making your will legal

Certain criterion have to be fulfilled to make your will legally binding.

You must be:

  • be 18 or over
  • make it voluntarily
  • be of sound mind
  • make it in writing
  • sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are both over 18
  • have it signed by your two witnesses, in your presence

Also, your witnesses and their spouses cannot be beneficiaries of the will.

When you add to a will, it’s done through a document known as a codicil – this also needs to be witnessed by two people.

And if you are making major changes to your will, you will need to create a new one and destroy the old one.

What should be included in a will?

While a will is essentially a document that sets out who gets what, it can get more complicated the more assets and more beneficiaries you have.

There are six key elements to consider though according to Kate Saunders, senior associate solicitor at Family Risk Report.

These are:

  • The appointment of executors (i.e. those that you wish to be appointed to administer your estate and ensure that your assets are distributed as intended)
  • Funeral wishes (though these are not legally binding)
  • Guardianship appointments (for those with children under 18)
  • Provision for the gifting of any digital assets (such as social media accounts but also financial assets such as Bitcoin)
  • Gifting of personal items or small sums of moneys to persons of preference
  • The gifting of the rest of your estate (known as your residuary estate)

She adds: “Full details of the names and addresses of those persons included as executors and beneficiaries should always be included.

“Any gifts that you wish to make, such as personal items of jewellery or bank accounts should include full descriptions of the same to ensure that there is no mistake as to the identification of these assets on death.”

If you are excluding anyone from your will, you should seek legal advice.

“It is always a good idea to briefly explain by letter given to the executors the reason for that exclusion as that will offer a helpful insight into the reasons for any exclusion and will assist with any later challenges to a will after death,” according to Saunders.

How much do wills actually cost?

As for prices, this varies hugely.

Saunders explains: “A simple will pack online or from a high street provider can cost as little as £15-20 for a single will. Mirror wills can also be drafted for partners or married couples wishing to make wills with similar provisions and will packs can be purchased for that purpose.

“However, we would not ordinarily advocate the use of these types of forms. As we are living in a society where second families are commonplace and the composition of a person’s assets can be complicated, advice when preparing a will is sometimes necessary to avoid the pitfalls of a poorly drafted will.

“Poor wording, a lack of appreciation of the composition of assets and joint ownership issues or even potential claims from family members that are excluded can give rise to unintended problems. It is much better therefore to take advice when preparing a will to ensure that what you wish to happen can be achieved and that unnecessary complications are avoided.”

As for a will drafted by a solicitor (they are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority), these can start from around £100 but will vary depending on how complicated your will needs to be. You should be prepared to spend upwards of £300 though.