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Why you should think about your legacy and write a will

Write a will for those you leave behind as much as for yourself

This article on why you should write a will is by The Mr & Mrs from Team Monevator. Check back every Monday for more fresh perspectives from the Team.

Although The Mr & I only stumbled across the Financial Independence movement (FI) as we advanced into middle age, in general we’ve been a pair of early birds. We were quick off the blocks in terms of marriage, mortgage, and starting a family.

Yet as the offspring of older parents, we’ve also been at the coalface of ageing earlier than many friends.

Their parents are still in their 70s. Of our six collective parents and step-parents, only one – a spry 89-year-old – remains alive.

I’m certain that having elderly parents endowed me with melancholy tendencies. In fact I’ve probably given more headspace to contemplating death than I have to my post-FI goals.

And I’m not alone in this morbidity: The Mr regularly updates his funeral playlist!

The Mr: My funeral will be awesome. I’m just sorry I won’t be there.

The Mr & I wrote our first wills at 24 and 23 respectively. Even though back then we’d barely an asset between us.

Planner or pantser?

Planning for death is unusual for a pair of twenty-somethings. The Mr & Mrs are statistical outliers – early birds, again.

Yet I’m still surprised whenever someone I know tells me they know they ‘ought’ to get round to writing a will.

Flying by the seat of your pants – doing things in the nick of time – looks exciting. But it raises the risk of failure.

During the coronavirus pandemic, however, the UK experienced a rise in people writing wills. Forbes reports that the average age for someone writing a will has fallen from 50 in 2019, to just 47 in 2020.

My hunch is that Monevator readers (being a money-savvy lot) are more likely than average to have drawn up a will. Wealth begins to amass even in the early stages of pursuing FI, and pursuing freedom requires planning.

And given the energy and effort we invest into accumulating for our future selves, it’s odd not to pay attention to what happens once you’ve no further need of your funds.

Is there no place, organisation, or person that you would like to benefit?

The Mr: Apparently charities receive over £3bn a year from legacies, so that is something you may want to think about.

Of course, there’s a legal process to wind up the estates of those who die intestate (that is without a will). The Citizen’s Advice Bureau has a breakdown of likely outcomes in different situations.

What is less obvious is the additional time – and money – it can take to track down assets or even beneficiaries in the absence of a clear directive. This adds an extra dollop of uncertainty for the bereaved, and at a time when they may be struggling to cope, both mentally and practically

According to Unbiased, an association for financial advisors, in 2017 up to 31 million UK adults were at risk of dying without leaving a will.

If you’re one of those 31 million, then I would urge you to put ‘write a will’ at the top of your To Do list. (Or else ‘review will’ if it’s been a while since you last revisited it and your circumstances have changed.)

Write a will wherever you are on the path to FI. Get it done regardless of current age, state of health, and life expectancy. Write a will irrespective of whether you live with others, or alone, and with no known relatives.

The Mr: The reality is that none of us know what the future holds. Think of writing a will as reducing the gamble that something happens to your possessions after death that you wouldn’t want.

Too young to die?

We’re all gamblers at heart. We’re betting on living long enough to hit our financial independence numbers and to then reap the benefits.

Why else would we sacrifice present resources for the promise of future rewards?

Pandemic aside, the odds are good. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that:

  • UK life expectancy at birth (2017-2019) was 79.4 years (males) and 83.1 years (females).
  • Life expectancy for those already aged 65 years rises to 83.8 years (males) and 86.1 years (females).

But any deck of cards contains jokers.

For example, the same statisticians calculated that 1% of children born in England and Wales in 2019 will lose their mother before reaching their sixteenth birthday. Figures for fathers were harder to extrapolate, but were estimated to be even higher, at around 2%.

Long-ish odds, and yet I shouldn’t want to call them.

My mother died before I left school or met The Mr. For all her dreams of traveling on the Trans-Siberian Express or learning to play the piano, she never got close to retirement.

Anyone in their 40s or upwards will have some contemporaries who, sadly, did not live out the usual lifespan.

The Mr & I plan to end our days in a tidy manner. We don’t want to burden our kids or the state. Our financial planning assumes that we reach a ripe old age – let’s go for an aspirational 90 years – without a marriage bust-up, dependent adult children, or more than three years of expensive end-of-life care each.

Future forward

Drafting a will is not just a mechanism for disbursing your assets once you no longer need them. It is a part of your legacy to a world without you.

Even though life has a habit of disrupting the best-laid plans, The Mr & I hope to leave behind a positive legacy.

Something that doesn’t seem unfair, sow discord or cause distress. Instead, something that reflects our lives and lived values.

Something that looks to the future.

The final chapter

Neither The Mr nor I are qualified to give legal advice. But we have seen several wills that have proven distressing.

The Mr: One relative left a will that seemed to be saying they didn’t much care what happened after they died. That was hurtful for their children.

One tip when writing that first will is to set aside time to consider what you’d want to happen to your belongings should you die in the next week, month, or year.

Use the time to consider what end of life treatment you’d undergo, and whether to consent to being an organ donor. (Among the rash of recently published medical memoirs, there’s an excellent account that guides readers through the sorts of decisions they will need to make, somewhere towards the end: 33 Meditations on Death by David Jarrett.)

You would do well too to adopt the medical maxim: first, do no harm.

More tips for when you write a will

1. Last words

Your will is likely to be your final communication with family and others who knew you. Try to avoid it leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.

Think about the tone and language adopted. Whilst some technical terms are required, there’s nothing to stop you adopting a warm tone or plain English where possible. Even if the will says exactly what has been anticipated, it’s unsettling to read an overly-formal, fussy legal document when the deceased was an untidy, fun-loving friend.

If you don’t want to deviate from standard wording, here’s a suggestion: write a letter of farewell.

Write short positive letters to children or significant others that recall good times spent together and thoughts for their future. Try to be magnanimous. Most kids (even middle-aged ones) want reassurance in the wake of death.

Keep these letters with your will. Update them as and when needed.

2. Transparency

One of the advantages of planning your legacy earlier rather than later is that time is on your side. You are not making decisions under the duress of a terminal illness. Your thinking is not impaired by dementia and other age-related diseases.

Use the opportunity of drafting your will to discuss its implications with anyone who might reasonably expect to be a beneficiary.

Transparency is easier in straightforward situations. When The Mr & I updated our wills in 2018, we showed our kids the documents. It sounds a bit ghoulish, but they were reassured that we’d named guardians in the event of both of us dying, understood that we intended to leave bequests to charity and, most importantly as far as they were concerned, that there was adequate provision for re-homing any family pets (not named).

But what if your situation is complicated?

Perhaps you consider your adult step-children to be more deserving than your own children? Or you’ve decided to leave everything to your oldest son because he has a disabled child? Or your relatives are all sufficiently well-off and there are better causes you’d prefer to help?

If you want to do something off the beaten track, communicate and start to manage expectations. You may discover that things are not as you supposed or that your relatives approve of your chosen charities.

In these situations, seek legal advice in drawing up your will. Any one of the scenarios sketched above could lead to a contested will and, according to a recent Financial Times report, inheritance disputes are on the rise.

Don’t risk your legacy festering into a family rift.

3. Stuff matters

I wish my mother had known about a Letter of Wishes. At my mother’s funeral, a number of her relatives asked me for a meaningful memento. A few roamed around the house until my father put a stop to it.

A Letter of Wishes does not have the legal force of a will. At its simplest, if you think Auntie Jean should have that vase then note it down. The publication Which? has clear advice on drawing up a Letter of Wishes

Another alternative is a Living Will. This distributes cherished items to relatives, friends, or organisations who could use them while you are alive.

When an elderly relative of The Mr – let’s call her Doris – downsized, she asked children, grandchildren, nephews, and nieces what items of hers they would like. There was astonishingly little overlap.

Everyone got at least one thing they actually wanted and Doris herself got to see many of her things appreciated in new homes.

Just do it: write a will!

Despite dealing with death, your will is a living document. It needs drafting and, once drafted, needs revisiting.

There are costs to consider. There are free templates online and some will writing services are very inexpensive. However, for most of us it’s worth a few hundred pounds to get it drawn up by a qualified, regulated solicitor.

The Law Society recommends using someone carrying its ‘Wills & Inheritance Quality’ accreditation. A solicitor will generally also deal with storing the will with the government’s HM Courts and Tribunals Service, which is a handy backup in case it goes missing or there is a dispute about the final version.

The Mr: They can also help with inheritance tax planning, but that’s a subject for another post, written by someone with the right expertise.

Last words: plan for death so that you can get on with the business of living.

See all The Mr & Mrs’ articles in their dedicated archive.

{ 18 comments… add one }
  • 1 Planalyst November 22, 2021, 6:13 pm

    For over 55s, a Will can be professionally written up by Solicitors for free in March and October, see details here:

  • 2 Fatbritabroad November 22, 2021, 6:54 pm

    Incredibly timely article. My mum passed away two weeks ago. Relatively modest estate but a mid 6 figure sum and me the only child. A long term platonic companion who’d provided care for the last 11 years.

    The will 16 years old never updated splits her entire estate between me and a long term friend. No context for me, written at a time when I was a Young adult but my own situation was precarious due to my parents impending divorce and moving out into my own shared ownership home due to my unwillingness to take sides

    What was likely simply a lovely gift to a friend with no further thought for her support is seen as petty and vindictive to myself plus selfishly what the extra money would have meant for her two year old grandchild.

    Very Fortunately I have no massive need for the extra cash and had always thought it would go on care (though in my dark moments I will admit to being disappointed) as this kind of thing can tear descendents apart and if this had happened when the will was written I would have been absolutely livid rightly or wrongly. I can afford to be philosophical as I very much doubt the friend will consider anything like varying the will to provide a bequest for my daughter which is what I think mum would have wanted. And I have no right or need to ask.

    Most upsetting Nothing for the companion and he’s now facing being up rooted and homeless. Fortunately the friend and I are on the same page and are assisting in a limited way where we can (a car some months support and relocation costs)
    My daughter realistically will be more than fine anyway but another layer of complication and stress that you just don’t need at this sad time

  • 3 Valiant November 22, 2021, 6:57 pm

    I sold my business a few years ago and as part of the financial restructuring my accountant put us in touch with a will writer. Well it was quite the eye-opener! Despite the fact that we’ve been married for 30 years and get on as amiably and as well as any couple who’ve stuck it out that long, Mrs Valiant and I had *completely* different ideas on what should happen if one of us died and the other didn’t. She is keen to give away much of our assets at that point to our twenty-something kids, whereas I can’t think of anything worse: I don’t think my living expenses would decrease much if she were to hear The Final Trumpet first and am not at all keen on ceding control. We ended up leaving the initial meeting without agreement and in fact some years later still haven’t amended our each-to-the-other-then-all-to-the-kids wills of 25 years ago.

    The point is that, on any number of financial subjects that you just assumed you were in accord on, being forced to think about them and articulate them to a third party so that they can become a plan can be quite a revealing exercise.

  • 4 steveark November 22, 2021, 11:07 pm

    I went to a woman’s funeral today, she was the daughter of one of my friends. She was 43 and had a nearly grown kid. You don’t expect someone to die that young but it happens more often than people think. She had a long term illness and I’m sure she had a will because her death was not a surprise. But its great advice and its kind of selfish to leave your loved ones with no guidance when you leave this realm. Very good and timely post.

  • 5 JimJim November 23, 2021, 7:41 am

    I was late in life to my first will, a little over 50. A professionally written one is a comfort when your assets are significant and living arrangements are usually pretty unique to each set of clients. From that first will and conversation with its writer, I know it will not be long before we need to consider further estate planning and altering the will as assets have increased some since.
    One thing.
    Lasting power of attourney.
    Having been in the position of caring for aging relatives twice, once with and once without LPA. It is kinder to your potential carers to set it up as early as you can. I will be doing this with my imminent early retirement.

  • 6 Dean November 23, 2021, 12:47 pm

    Think very carefully who to appoint as executor. Wills for law firms are loss leaders. They make their profits administering the estate. Some do hourly rates, some charge a percentage of the estate value. Both cost many thousands. As with investment platforms, try and avoid percentage fees. If the house is the main asset, the work involved is no greater dependent on its value. Much probate work is purely admin- writing to banks or platforms etc asking for valuations of accounts. This is often delegated to trainee solicitors. If you can and if suitable, appoint a financially capable relative as executor. That saves on the fees and will often be done quicker. But do use a law firm to do the will. You might also choose to nominate them as substitute executor.

  • 7 Chris November 23, 2021, 3:30 pm

    @Dean – I’d caveat that. I am a qualified lawyer, albeit specialising in clinical negligence. My dad died earlier this year following a long illness post a brain injury, both my mum and I were appointed executors. In theory I *probably* could have dealt with executing the estate, but I was also taking a lead role in preparing for the inquest.

    For an estate just under the basic (i.e. non-spousal shared) IHT exemption the fee was less than £1,000. I sent one or two emails and signed a couple of forms in that time – very little hassle and, to be honest, I didn’t want to deal with all the admin at a time of grief.

    At the end of the day, the fees are paid from the estate. The time and stress it would have taken me to administer the estate and ensuring compliance with statute and IHT requirements was more than offset by paying someone to do it.

  • 8 DavidV November 23, 2021, 4:27 pm

    Maybe this sounds strange, but when my mother died just under three years ago I found that administering her estate was a task that gave me focus and helped me deal with the grief. I think I would have found relying on a solicitor far more stressful as I would have fumed at the time various tasks would undoubtedly have taken. In any case, most of the data gathering realistically would have have needed to be done by me and I was already on top of my mother’s finances before her death having been granted LPA by her.

  • 9 David C November 23, 2021, 5:36 pm

    @Chris – I think what you’re saying is that a layman person nominated as executor in a will can hire a lawyer to do the work if they want or need to. That seems preferable to having the decision forced by having a lawyer specified in the will. If only because it gives the survivors the opportunity to shop around for price, competence or convenience.

  • 10 Jonathan B November 23, 2021, 6:20 pm

    @DavidC, that is the key issue. Never never ever appoint a solicitor or a bank as executor, for them it is a licence to print money. A very different situation when a family member executor buys legal expertise in a competitive market – it is easy for a solicitor appointed as executor to add a zero to the price @Chris quotes.

    My wife’s family were burnt when her aunt re-wrote her will and the solicitor appointed himself as executor. It was cheaper for her and her brother to spend £2000 of their own money on another solicitor to challenge the situation (the solicitor had drawn up the will when aunt was already suffering from dementia, and charged peanuts for an unnecessarily complicated will necessitating continuing solicitor fees for years to come).

  • 11 Christopher Frankling November 23, 2021, 8:46 pm

    @David – Agreed. In the end we went with the firm that drafted the will, it was all on file and they had the background details. I think the bigger problem is when family are nominated and feel they *have* to do it themselves at a time when they may not be up to it. Also, my inner lawyer didn’t want to screw up and be open to litigation aimed at me!

  • 12 Jonathan B November 23, 2021, 10:45 pm

    @Christopher Franklin – how often is legal action taken against executors? Is it an actual risk? In my late mother’s case (my sister and I were joint executors but in practice I did it) it was drafted so all the specific beneficiaries such as charities clearly got exactly what was intended, and we were transparent within the family about the rest which was precisely divided.

    I can see that it would be a problem with an ambiguous will – but I am not sure a solicitor could solve that one. And in dividing chattels, happily no one quibbled about the valuation of the family Rembrandt.

  • 13 Dean November 24, 2021, 12:28 pm

    @ Chris, ditto! A will is cheap, in the low hundreds for most. But with estate administration, even without IHT to pay, private client departments will usually estimate many thousands; charging an hourly rate in the hundreds plus VAT. Soon adds up. Your late father’s estate must have been very straightforward. Yes grief can make it unappealing to deal. But it’s less grief inducing than dealing with the death certificate, funeral, or, in your case, the inquest. On the flip side, there’s a pride in taking care of it. The money saved goes to the beneficiaries. It’s possible to seek advice on any tricky points from a probate solicitor without giving them the whole job. It’s poor value to pay hundreds per hour for a junior or trainee to eg write to a bank asking for a valuation for example. Much estate admin is just that, admin, rather than legal tasks as such. And because of the number of tasks, it often protracts far longer than if a lay executor is acting. It’s down to the family and testator what they think is appropriate; assuming a lay family member executor is capable, available and willing.

  • 14 Bill G November 24, 2021, 3:30 pm

    Another really good article.

    Something not mentioned is how much control you actually have over where your wealth goes.


    The article is five years old but raises the issue of your financial responsibilities to your adult offspring, even you would much rather leave it all to the proverbial Donkey Sanctuary.

  • 15 Chris November 24, 2021, 9:19 pm

    @Jonathan B – I know of people from other firms who have had to deal with very litigious family members, but generally when the estate is much larger. Fortunately, I’ve never worked in the field but working only in litigation I probably it’s more prevalent than it is.

    @Dean – Yes, a very simply estate – it made me realise, and I said to my wife after, that with numerous GIAs, ISA and SIPPs it would be a lot more hassle for her. For me the inquest was more the chance to spare my mum from having to prepare witness statements for the Coroner, read all the clinician reports and ensure the privacy he valued in life was maintained in death by limiting the information ultimately included in the inquest.

  • 16 LukeM November 27, 2021, 11:08 am

    And, of course, there are organisations doing good work other than charities that will appreciate your legacy.

  • 17 The Mr & Mrs November 27, 2021, 3:18 pm

    Many thanks all for sharing your comments and stories, it’s been a great discussion. I think the point is reinforced that it’s worth thinking about this sooner rather than later, and being as transparent as you can with everyone involved.

    @Valiant – it’s a great point. A married couple is a team in this game and communicating goals is invaluable. Hope you and Mrs V find a compromise!

  • 18 TARDIS November 28, 2021, 11:41 am

    Thanks for another interesting article.

    I’d second the importance of every adult with any assets getting a POA. It’s bad enough for a loved one to be seriously ill without adding in the stress of not being able to pay the bills as you can’t access their money etc.

    People also need to be aware that marriage or civil partnership will void a pre-existing will unless written “in contemplation of said marriage/partnership”.

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