By Samantha Warner, Senior Associate at Winckworth Sherwood
Searching for the term ‘will writing’ brings up a plethora of adverts for free wills and low-cost wills. But is a quick and easy online will the bargain that it appears to be, or will it come back to haunt you and your family?
Recent research commissioned by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) – the professional body for inheritance advisors – paints a rather bleak picture of how the UK’s adult population are (or, in many cases, are not) planning for how their estates will pass on their death. It revealed that:
- 49% of adults do not have a will in place, and this figure increases to 65% among 45 to 54-year-olds.
- Of those that do have wills, 22% reported acquiring them from low-cost will writing websites and a further 22% said they used a DIY will making kit.
Consequently, a significant proportion of the UK population either has no will in place at all or they are unable to guarantee that the individual that wrote or checked their will was adequately qualified to do so. Both observations are troubling and should be borne in mind by anyone thinking of taking advantage of low-cost will writing offers.
Unlike many civil law jurisdictions where the law dictates where some or all of your assets will pass on your death, we have the right in England and Wales to decide to whom our estate should be distributed. This ‘testamentary freedom’ is a privilege but failing to prepare a will in exercise of that freedom could mean that you risk passing away without having directed where you would like your assets to go and without having appointed someone who you trust to administer your estate. Your assets will instead be distributed in accordance with the laws of intestacy, and the burden of applying to the court to appoint an estate administrator will fall to your loved ones, creating unnecessary stress, additional costs, and delays at an already difficult time.
Whilst using a quick and inexpensive will writing service or a DIY kit may seem like a good solution, it comes with its own risks. As we and many of our fellow STEP members have seen first-hand, such wills often contain critical errors that go unnoticed until the family try to prove the will after your death. Your will could be declared invalid if it wasn’t signed correctly, may be more vulnerable to challenge by any disgruntled beneficiaries or may even fail to express your testamentary intentions accurately. Perhaps most commonly, wills drafted without a thorough review or understanding of the individual’s circumstances, can create unfavourable tax consequences for your estate. In fact, a shocking one-third of the practitioners that responded to STEP’s survey said that they had encountered cases where mistakes in estate planning led to significant and unnecessary tax bills. Hence, online or DIY will writing may not be as low-cost as it seems, risking considerable financial and personal costs after your passing.
The bottom line is that not enough of the UK’s adult population have wills and many of the wills that are in place have not been drafted or checked by qualified practitioners. We advise everyone to put a will in place but to remember the old adage that ‘you get what you pay for’. It is crucial to verify the qualifications and professional experience of the draftsperson, look out for hidden costs in any free or low-cost offering, and ensure the person writing your will takes the time to properly understand the complexities of your estate, your wishes and your family circumstances. Ultimately estate planning is very personal and often requires individual and nuanced advice, making investing in the services of a qualified and reputable practitioner, such as a STEP member, worthwhile.