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Why make a will

Abby lost more than she first thought

"When Dave collapsed in front of me I thought it was the worst thing that could happen -but I was wrong. He hadn't made a will and I ended up with nowhere to live.

We met through my work in a restaurant. He was really easy to talk to, always interested and had a larger-than-life smile. We met a number of times before he told me he'd lost his wife, two years before, to cancer. He had two grown up daughters, Sarah and Natalie.

We lived together in my rented flat for a couple of months while he house-hunted. Eventually he bought a place close to his business, and we had nine very happy years and two sons together, Jon and Danny. Then one evening he came back from jogging and collapsed. He died before the ambulance arrived.

I had stopped working when Jon was born, and since Dave’s business was going strong, he had said he would provide for us. We had talked a couple of times about making a will; he knew what he wanted but never wrote it down.

Because we weren’t married and he hadn't made a will everything was divided equally between the four children. I was left with nothing.

Sarah and Natalie applied to become the administrators of his estate, which means they have control over my boys' inheritance until they are 18. I had nowhere to live because our family home was not in our joint names. I had no money, except my small savings, and nowhere to go.

I didn't imagine things could get any worse. But then one day I came home to find a note from my step daughters. They had taken all of Dave's belongings: his clothes, photos even the watch I'd given him for his 45th birthday. The note also said they and their grandmother, Dave's mother, were arranging his funeral. They would not accept any suggestions or offers of help. There was nothing I could do. I'm sure Dave would have wanted me to be central to the ceremony. If he'd made a will he could have said.

Once the numbness passed, I tried to talk to Sarah and Natalie about what Dave had wanted but they weren’t interested. So I took some legal advice and made a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. It's a claim against Dave's estate for some money for myself and for the right for the boys and me to live in our house, the only house the boys have ever known. It feels weird, but my opponents have to be my sons as well as Sarah and Natalie.

The money I've asked for is, I'm sure, much less than Dave would have wanted; but it will only take more time, effort and hostile negotiation, to get any more. The legal costs will come to over £20,000 as it is. Money I could have used to bring up the boys, if only Dave had made a will.

Woman in scarf

Not just for the rich

Many of us tend to assume that wills are just for rich people with plenty of money to leave and an extended bickering family to fight over it. But they aren’t. It’s important that you make a will for other reasons:

  • In your will you give particular people the right to sort out your affairs. This isn't exactly a fun job but many people find it a comfort when they are grieving, as it's the last thing they can do for their loved one. Other people find it difficult and stressful. This is why it is better for you to make the choice. Without a will, it will automatically be your nearest relative. See How to make a will for more details.
  • If you have children under 18, you need to make sure that you've appointed a guardian to look after them if you (and anyone else with Parental Responsibility) die, and ensure they will be provided for financially.
  • In your will you can state any wishes you may have about your funeral and who you want to be involved. This might be very important if your blood relations don't like or accept your partner.
  • You can leave some types of tenancy to people in your will, to protect your loved ones from having to find a new home after your death. See our Housing & LivingTogether leaflet from more details.
  • It's also important to bear in mind that none of us know how we will die. Your family may be entitled to compensation, a death-in-service payment, or an insurance pay-out. If you don't make a will, this too will go to your blood relatives, not your partner.

Sticky situations

There are a number of sticky situations that frequently happen because people don’t make a will. The most common occur when:

You are still ‘technically’ married to somebody else

If you are separated but not yet divorced from your husband, wife, or civil partner, they will inherit the bulk of your estate. They would get your personal possessions and at least the first £250,000 (plus a life interest in half of anything that is left) – even though you'd probably want this to go to your current partner or your children. Your children will only get something if your estate is worth more than £250,000. And your unmarried partner, as always, will get nothing. If you have no children, your ex would get the first £450,000 and half of anything that is left.

You have children, a partner, and aren’t married

If you have children (and aren’t married, or are divorced) the whole estate will be divided between your children. This may seem good on the face of it, but could cause real problems between your children and your partner. The children would own any savings, your personal belongings, and possibly even the home; your partner would have no right to anything. If your children are still under 18 they wouldn’t be able to negotiate a change, so your partner would face the choice of fighting them for a share of your estate in court, or get nothing.

We might like to think our partner and children will always treat each other in the way we would like, but we can never be sure what will happen in the future. Even if you wanted your children to inherit the whole of your estate, there are better ways of doing it – perhaps a trust that would ensure your partner had some income, or the right to stay in the home for the rest of his/her life.

You have step-children

All your biological and adopted children are treated equally in the eyes of the law, so they will all inherit from you whether they come from a current or previous relationship. Your partner's children are not included, no matter how much you may think of them as “yours”. If you would like them to have a share in your estate, you need a will.

You haven’t appointed a guardian

If you have children under the age of 18, and are the only person with Parental Responsibility for them, you need to appoint a guardian. If you don’t do this, it will be very hard for people to know what you wanted to happen. With all the goodwill in the world, your family and friends could fight over what to do and damage their relationships, and your kids could end up being raised by someone who you wouldn’t have chosen. See If you have young children.

Download this guide as an easy-to-print PDF Wills and Living Together (490 KB)

February 2009

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