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Why you should think about your legacy and write a will

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 [1] 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 [2] pandemic, however, the UK experienced a rise in people writing wills. Forbes reports [3] 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 [4] 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 [5] 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 [6], an association for financial advisors, in 2017 up to 31 million UK adults were at risk [7] 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 [8]. 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 [9] the Office of National Statistics show that:

But any deck of cards contains jokers.

For example, the same statisticians calculated [10] 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 [11] 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 [12], 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? [13] 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 [14] 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 [15], 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 [16].