Wills Without Pain
  Unbiased information on all aspects of wills and probate in England and Wales

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James Gandolfini (1961-2013), Sopranos star

Bernard Matthews (1930-2010), Turkey Producer

Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Screenwriter

Brooke Astor (1902-2007), Big Apple brouhaha

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), London artist

Huguette Clark (1906-2011), big-bucks legacy dispute in USA

Highclere Castle, the "real" Downton Abbey

Almina, Lady Carnarvon, the "real" mistress of Downton Abbey

Two men, 295 diamonds, one sparkling dispute




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Do It Yourself

Going Solo

Will-writing kits are available from several suppliers. Lawpack's kit contains several blank forms (simple gift from residue, residue direct to children, others), one set for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and another for Scotland. It also has a comprehensive Guidance Manual, which contains examples and sample text.

This section contains general information about DIY wills. It also contains links to two pages: one provides reasons for doing it yourself, and the other highlights the risks.

Getting started

A will can be prepared fairly quickly - a matter of minutes for simple wills. But even with simple wills, haste can lead to considerable waste.

Some people - accident victims and the seriously ill, for example - may have no choice but to do a rush job when making their wills. Most people have plenty of time (too much time for the legions who know they should make a will, intend to do so, and perpetually put it off).

Wills can consist of only a sentence or two, or run to dozens, even hundreds, of pages.

Whatever the length, the will should be properly formatted, clearly written, and correctly witnessed and signed.

You need to sign your will in front of two witnesses - and they sign it too, at the same time you do. This procedure sounds simple but incorrect witnessing mars many wills.

Wills are not merely legal or illegal, valid or invalid. Some are clearer than others, some are wiser than others in managing your finances, and some are more future-proof than others. What are your wishes should one or more of your beneficiaries die before you do, or one of your children gets divorced? Good wills anticipate future developments.

Some wills are neater than others. Neatness per se doesn't matter much: Tidiness will not make a will invalid. But it does not cost extra either. A sloppily prepared will may be more vulnerable to legal challenge.

So even if your witnesses are on hand, think twice before committing pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Even if you construct a legally valid DIY will, the pennies you save by doing it yourself could easily cost your heirs many pounds because your tax planning wasn't all it could be. It could cost them a lot more if the will is invalid.

Whatever route you take, do some preliminary homework and research - on the financial and practical aspects of wills as well as the legal.

Make a list of your assets, liabilities and potential beneficiaries. Take notes on, and make a list of questions about, tax-saving ideas. Even if you consult a financial adviser, solicitor or professional will-writer, your questions and notes should help them do a better job in less time. You should get a better will as a result, and pay a smaller fee for it.

Some quick facts

You can make a will provided you are

Elderly testators and questions of soundness of mind If an elderly person is making a will for the first time, or revising an old will (by making a new codicil, or by making a new will that revokes all previous wills), consider asking the person's doctor to be a witness. A doctor can determine and affirm that the testator is of sound mind. The doctor should record that visit in his or her notes. For more information on wills and the elderly, start here.

DIY or No DIY - or Something In Between

If you fix your own plumbing and botch the job, a professional plumber will gladly finish the job - for a fee. And the plumber's charges might be high enough to defeat your original purpose of saving money. It would have been worthwhile to hire the plumber in the first place.

Wills are different. If you do do it yourself, consider instructing a solicitor to give your will a once-over. The solicitor's "call-out fee" should be modest.

Insurance companies, banks and other organisations offer a semi-DIY service in which you prepare your basic will via a questionnaire which, usually, is then inspected by a specialist. These services are impersonal and generally suitable only for simple wills - small uncomplicated estates, and small uncomplicated families. Golda Bechal was rich enough to afford a solicitor, and her affairs complicated enough to need sorting out by a well-trained legal eye. Nevertheless, she used the will-writing service provided by her bank, and the result was a costly legal mess.

A few quick FAQs

Q: Do wills have to be in English?

A: No.

Q: Must wills follow a certain format?

A: Yes and No and Maybe/Probably. Yes in that wills must be properly witnessed, for example. No in the sense that a will can be handwritten, typewritten or word-processed. Maybe in that a new will usually contains a phrase revoking all previous wills and codicils (but some people - those with foreign assets and foreign wills, for example - may not want to revoke ALL other wills).

There is no single format, no prescribed language, but certain structures, phrases and terms are better than others.

Q: Who is the party of the first part?

Plain English (or plain any other language) is as good as, and may even be better than, fancy terminology. But simple language can be too simple for its own good. For example, you leave all your "money" to someone. Do you mean to include stocks and shares? Legal terminology is best left to the lawyers, and whatever kind of language you use, clarity should be the goal.

Q: Must the will be on paper?

A: Yes. History and legend tell of wills that have been written on shovels and other unusual objects. Paper is preferable. Have you ever tried to photocopy a shovel?

Q: Must it be signed?

A: Yes, by the testator and the witnesses. (People who cannot sign it can affix an X - can "make their mark" - in conditions that attest to the signing.)

The signature should appear at the end of the document - and if the document runs to more than one page, each page should be initialled at the bottom - by the witnesses as well as the testator.

You should also date your will when you sign it.

Q: What about executors?

A: It is customary to appoint two executors although it is not uncommon to appoint three, even four. Actually, you can appoint more than four, but only a maximum of four can act officially. Remember that anyone names as an executor can decline, even if they told you they would be happy to be your executor.

Q: Who should be selected as witnesses?

A: If you intend to leave something to one or both of your witnesses - or their spouses or civil partners - find other witnesses. Witnesses - or their spouses/civil partners - can not be beneficiaries.

Q: What about spelling?

A: A wrongly spelled word can spell trouble later on. If in doubt concerning a name, address or term (its meaning as well as its spelling), double check and do further research.

WWP TIP word processor spell-checkers find errors but these checkers themselves need to be checked. If you misspell a word but your wrongly spelled word is a bona fide word (like 'text' when you intended 'test' or 'sing' when you meant 'sign'), the spell checker will be fooled.

example: you intend to type 'will' but insert an 'a' or 'e' or 'u' instead of the 'i'. the spell-checker will flag 'wull' but 'wall' and 'well' are correct and will sneak in under the spell-checker's radar.

Q: Why are wills so formal, so fussy, so punctilious?

A: Because any little wrinkle opens up the possibility of confusion or legal challenge.

Diana, Princess of Wales, drew up her will on 1 June 1993 but the date is spelled out in the document: 'this first day of June one thousand nine hundred and ninety three.' By spelling it all out, it is much harder to alter the will or misread it. For example, changing the date from 1 June 1993 to 11 June 1998 could be executed relatively easily. Those two changes could not be performed with the numbers spelled out as words.

In a codicil, Princess Diana appointed her sister Elizabeth as her executor and identifies her as 'Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia McCorquodale (known as The Lady Sarah McCorquodale) of Stoke Rochford Grantham Lincolnshire NG33 5EB.'

The world may contain several Elizabeth McCorquodales, but there is only one Elizabeth Sarah Lavinia McCorquodale of Stoke Rochford Grantham.

Who got the shetes?

In what is perhaps the best-known bequest in the history of wills William Shakespeare (1564-1616) left his second-best bed to his wife.

"Item, I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture."

The author of Hamlet, King Lear and Othello got away with "gyve" and "wief" because spelling was not standardised in his day. Indeed, his own name appears as Shakspere, Shakespere, Shaxpere, and even the hyphenated Shakes-pere. However, he was consistent in his will, which he signed three times as Shakspere.

The beneficiary of the bed was his wife, Anne Hathaway, whose cottage is a major tourist attraction in Shottery, near Stratford-on-Avon.

Neatness counts too

Wills should not be stapled - for good reason. It might be necessary at some point to remove the staples, thereby leaving staple holes behind. This is a no-no. The presence of holes might give the impression that pages are (or might be) missing from the will. Unscrupulous people have added, or removed, pages from wills. In our computer era, counterfeit pages have been added to wills.

Trickery with wills has been occurring for centuries. The rules and rigidity associated with will-making are there for good reason.

Long or short?

Wills come in all lengths, from extra-short to extra-long. A will can merely state: 'I leave everything to xxx.' and be perfectly valid as well as clear. Supposedly the shortest will ever written contained a mere two words: "All to wife." The Czech original is "Vse zene."

What is the right length for a will?

A will has to a job to do. That task is to distribute your estate according to your wishes. Your will should be no longer or shorter than is necessary to do that job.

German poet Heinrich Heine (died 1856) disobeyed this prescription, leaving his entire estate to his wife, but on the condition that she married again: 'At least one man will then regret my death." The world is richer for this witticism, although such editorialising is best left out of wills.

In 2008 a wealthy American manufacturer of jam and salad-dressing disposed of a large and diverse estate that, in addition to containing a good deal of money, also included valuable cars, an airplane, the odd Oscar statuette and other items. This successful entrepreneur, Paul Newman, was survived by his actress wife Joanne Woodward, five children, two grandchildren and a brother. Better known, of course, as an actor who also became a race-car driver, and whose food business profits were given to charity, Newman needed 18 pages to account for his estate.

Pros and Cons of DIYing

Click here for more reasons for doing it yourself, and click here for reasons why you should not take the risk.

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This website provides general information only which does not constitute advice for legal, tax, investment or other purposes. Professional advice tailored to your particular circumstances is strongly advised.

Copyright © 2008-2012-14 Robert Liebman. All rights reserved.