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My seven-year-old daughter is trying on my clothes, twirling in the mirror. She is tripping over impossibly long skirts, shuffling in clownish shoes and dripping in dangling necklaces.
“Can I have these when you die?” she asks, unaware that a) none of it is worth a bean and b) this is not a particularly jolly subject for conversation in the tail end of a global pandemic.
She has, however, accidentally hit upon a sore subject. I have not updated my will in almost a decade. Since then, a second child has been born, a new home bought, and our family finances have changed (sadly by fractions, not fortunes).
The necessity to address all this had been on my mind for years, yet somehow remained pushed to the bottom of a do-list of less important but more immediate tasks – the assembly of world book day costumes, the purchase of new school shoes, the policing of trombone practice…
In this, it turns out, I am not alone. As a nation, we have been getting worse at making wills. According to the latest figures, nearly half (46 per cent) of those aged 55 and over have not yet written a will. That’s a 20 per cent increase since 2018 where the figure stood at only 26 per cent. Among my own age group - the 35-44-year-old camp most likely to have young children at home - the percentage rises to a staggering 75 per cent.
Many explanations have been offered for this, including lower rates of home ownership (why make a will, if you’ve nothing to pass on?). The trend, however, might now be reversing. And fast. Last year, demand for willing writing rose 298 per cent among millennials like me, and by 465 per cent among those belonging to the younger Generation Z.
The online will writing service FreeWills.co.uk reported a 300 per cent rise in customers in the year since Covid-19 hit. It’s busiest day? March 23, 2020 – the day the first lockdown was announced and we all faced up to our mortality.
This is not a happy trend. But might it , at least, have one positive and practical outcome. Will we now, finally, get round to making a will?
“It had been on our to do list for so long but it was the double whammy of the pandemic – seeing so many people die or almost die from Covid, including a close friend, plus lockdown leading to us focusing on really important things we needed to do but had been putting off when life was normal,” says Ruth Elkins, who is finalising the details of her will the very week we speak.
Her son is five, and: “My primary concern was who would take care of Hugo if we both died and how his upbringing would be financially secured.”
Other parents I survey at the school gates, however, remain confused about where to start, or what exactly would happen to their assets and – more importantly – their children, if they were to die without one.
In fact, knowledge about the ‘rules of intestacy’ (governing what happens in the absence of a valid will) were incredibly low pre-pandemic. Just one in ten adults claimed to know what they are and how they work. So I call Ian Bond, member of the Law Society’s Wills and Equity Committee. I am married with two children. If I had no will at all, what would happen if I were struck by lightning?
“There’s a series of questions to ask,” says Bond. First: “what’s the size of the assets in your sole name? There are special rules covering joint accounts and property. But if your sole assets are above £270,000 then what happens is the amount above that gets split into two pots: one for your husband, the other divided equally between your children.
"Your husband gets the first £270,000 in cash, plus your personal belongings. If you’re below £270,000, everything just goes to your husband.”
Should my husband and I both be struck down, our assets would pass to our two children. If we were neither married or in a civil partnership, or should we posses children from previous relationships, things would be considerably more complex.
The rules of intestacy could distribute our assets in ways that would not only unjust, but extremely painful and divisive, locking out one set of children, or even our current partners.
Since our family unit is almost boringly conventional, however, and since (at the risk of giving away too many clues about the size of my own fortune) the fate and distribution of my assets would be very uncomplicated in either scenario, maybe the will problem is not as pressing as I had thought?
Perhaps, says Bond, but consider this: “You’re a parent, with minor kids. The worst thing in the world is to put them through any process involving the courts.”
A will, of course, is not just for setting out who gets their hands on the best china. For parents with young children, is also where you state who would take your most precious assets home in the event of your deaths.
Pass away without a guardian clause written into a will and – even with an army of upstanding and solvent family waiting in the wings – social services will get involved in your children’s futures, explains Bond.
“Having been through that process many times with families, it’s the worst thing in the world to do to a child who’s just lost their parents. Strangers come in with clipboards asking them lots of questions. Family members are interrogated when all they want is to grieve for a loved one and take care of the child but instead they’re taking to spend time with lawyers and social workers.
"It’s not a nice process. So this, on your list of pros and cons about whether to make a will, is a real driver.”
A 41-year-old-friend (who, embarrassed at having waited till the pandemic to make her will, does not want to be named) tells me that deciding on a guardian proved so difficult that she and her husband almost postponed their will-making process once again.
She wanted her sister, he wanted his. This, says Bond, is not uncommon: “Sometimes people are paralysed over making a decision because they’re at gridlock over who gets the kids. You’ll have a chat with a lawyer, and say: 'We’ll have a think about that.' Six months later, it’s still on the to-do list.”
The important thing, he says, is to name an individual or a couple: “I’ve seen home-made wills in which the parent has said: “I want my three sisters to be guardians”. But the sisters live in three different places and at that stage it causes a problem because the judge has got to say: “Children can’t spend a night here and a night there. Which one of them is going to take the day to day responsibility?”
Bond’s comment highlights yet another common hurdle in the will-making process. Just how are you supposed to do it? Will-making, it turns out, is something of a Wild West. You can get a solicitor to draw one up, employ the services of a cheaper, unregulated provider, or attempt to write one yourself.
Charities are increasingly getting in on the game, drawing up wills for free in the hope that you will remember them in the process and leave a legacy.
In order for your will to be valid, Citizen’s Advice explains, it must merely satisfy some simple criteria: made by someone over the age of 18 and of sound mind, voluntarily and without pressure (I wonder, briefly, about my daughter’s requests for jewellery and "tall shoes").
It does not have to be dated (though it’s advisable) but it must be signed you and two witnesses, in your presence. Even this last requirement has recently become less cumbersome: last summer and to the pressures of the pandemic, the law was changed in England and Wales to allow witnessing to take place remotely over video conferencing. Once done, a will need only be updated after key milestones, like births, deaths and marriages.
Essentially, there’s no longer any excuse for putting your head in the sand. Not that there ever was, really. “If you have children, they’re what you love most in the world,” Bond summarises with lawyerly concision. “So it’s worth making a will, to make sure they’re looked after.” I’ve taken his advice, will you?
Five tips for parents making wills
According to Julia Cox, private client partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, who specialises in succession planning
A guardian is not legally required to support a child from their own resources, so there are benefits to making financial provisions in your will. Some parents are happy for capital to be lent from their estate to guardians. Others choose to make a legacy to their chosen guardians.
Avoid intestacy complications and create your own trusts to benefit your children
The death of a parent can result in some of the estate being held in trust for children until they reach 18. Most parents are worried about whether their children will be ready to manage those assets as a young adult. Accordingly, many prefer to write wills that contain more detailed trusts, under which their children will not inherit until a later age or when the trustees decide they are ready.
Choose and guide the trustees for your children
Parents can choose who they want to act as executors (to collect in the assets, pay debts, tax, legacies) and who they want to act as trustees (where assets are retained in trust for minor children). These are often, but not always, the same people.
Plan re tax
Assets passing to your children directly on your death are potentially liable to inheritance tax (IHT) at a maximum rate of 40 per cent. You may need to reflect this with appropriate provisions in your will even if you die before your spouse/civil partner and are not leaving assets directly to your children at that stage. A sophisticated will writer will be live to this in writing wills that benefit each other first and foremost and thereafter your children.
Consider “locking” in for the benefit of your children if you are survived by a spouse/civil partner
Those in marriages/civil partnerships, particularly with children from outside of that relationship, may be keen to ensure that if they die first, their surviving partner has the lifetime benefit of their assets but that on the survivor’s subsequent death those assets pass back to the first’s children.