What Is a Will? How Does It Work? And Do I Need One?

Ian Lewis[1]

Ian Lewis

Money Savings Advice What Is a Will? How Does It Work? And Do I Need One?

As you go through your life, you’ll accumulate possessions and things that you care about. You’ll save money, might take out life insurance, and will possibly buy your own house. When you die, all that you’ve worked hard for will be gathered up and called your ‘estate.’

With a will to determine how your estate is managed, you have control over what happens to everything you owned once you’re no longer around.

Continue reading to get all the details

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What Is a Will?

A will is a formal written document. It specifies what should happen to your estate once you’re no longer around. Your estate is made up of your money, possessions, and property.

You might write a will to pass your belongings onto certain family members. You can also specify what happens to any dependents or pets.

If you don’t have a will, more general laws determine what happens to your estate. The laws might not match with your wishes, which means that your estate could be shared and divided in ways that you wouldn’t want. This could also happen if the will you’ve written isn’t legally valid, so it’s very important to have your will written up properly.

As well as specifying what happens to your property, your will can express other wishes. You can state whether you’d like to be cremated or buried, for example.

Who Should Make a Will?

There are many good reasons to make a will. Wills make things easier for loved ones left behind, helping them to understand your wishes and know what to do with your belongings. Wills can reduce Inheritance Tax, as well.

It’s always a good idea to have a will in place, but most only think about writing their will when they have younger children that depend on them or other dependents.

If you’re a parent of a younger child, having a will is especially important. You can decide who would be your child’s legal guardian if you weren’t around. You can also determine what happens to your money and your property, including whether it’s given directly to your child or to someone else that will look after them.

If you have no dependents and don’t mind what happens to all your belongings and property, you might not want to write a will or pay for a will-writing service. However, the process is relatively cheap, and most people have someone they’d like to leave their estate to. This doesn’t need to be someone in your immediate family.

Even if you don’t have anyone in mind as the recipient of your estate, you could choose to leave your estate to a charity that you support.

Since you’ve worked hard in life for everything you own, it makes sense to write a will and have your say over where it all goes when you die.

What Are the Different Types of Wills?

There are many different types of wills. You’ll need to decide which is the best to fit your needs.

What Is a Single Will?

A Single Will is for an individual. You can choose this if you’re a single person, or if you have a partner that has different wishes to your own. You might also choose a Single Will if your partner already has a will, so they don’t need to write a new one of their own.

A Single Will might be useful if you and your partner have children from previous relationships. In some cases, even for married couples, other types of will might not be suitable.

With a Single Will, your decisions are your own and independent from any other person’s.

What Is a Mirror Will?

If you have a partner and you both have the same wishes, you might want to write Mirror Wills. These wills are identical but opposite. If you die first, everything goes to your partner. If they die first, everything will be passed to you. Or, you can both decide to pass your estates onto someone else. The only rule for Mirror Wills is that you both have the same wishes. Mirror Wills are two separate documents with all the same contents, with each will mirroring the other.

If you’re in a relationship, Mirror Wills are often cheaper than two Single Wills. That’s because most of the work is repeated for the second will. If you want to specify slightly different plans, these can usually be quickly and easily added.

Even if wills are written as Mirror Wills, it’s important to know that your partner could change their wishes at any time. They could do this before or after your death.

What Is a Trust Will?

With a Trust Will, you’ll nominate a trustee to make decisions on your behalf. This can be a way to reduce Inheritance Tax or to protect your surviving dependents. You can still express wishes in a Trust Will, but the Trustee will make the final decisions once you’re gone.

You can use your Trust Will to make sure that your children have money set aside for education or to make sure that they don’t inherit money until they’ve reached a certain age.

If you choose a Discretionary Trust, your Trustee can decide who will be most in need of your money and property. They can then share your estate in the way that they feel is most suitable. If you choose a Property Trust, you can protect the value of the property you owned. A surviving spouse or partner may be allowed to continue living in the property. After your spouse dies, the property may be inherited by your children or another beneficiary.

With a Property Trust, a surviving spouse doesn’t inherit the property, so any care home fees or other costs will not take its value into account.

A Life Interest Trust is similar to a Property Trust. However, instead of just holding property, your trust will hold your whole estate.

A Flexible Trust is best suited to blended families. Your estate can be shared between a living spouse or partner and your separate children. You could ensure that some of your estate is released straight away to your partner, whilst other parts are safely set aside until your children can inherit.

What Is a Living Will?

Not quite the same as other types of will, a Living Will expresses your wishes in case you can't express them on your own. If you should suffer brain damage or a condition like Alzheimer's, leaving you with limited mental capacity or with limited communication, your Living Will can come into play whilst you're still alive.

You can use a Living Will to express your wishes about your future care and lifestyle, including any medical care and where you'd like to reside.

Does Writing a New Will Supersede an Old Will?

If you want to revoke or replace an old will, then you'll need to make sure that this is clearly stated on your new will.

A will doesn't expire, so any written in the past will still be valid today. The only way to cancel a will is to replace it with a new one or to revoke it legally. There are two ways to revoke a will – by getting a witnessed written document to state that it's been revoked or by physically destroying the original will.

If you're writing a new will to supersede the old one, start the document with a sentence like 'I hereby revoke all previous wills and codicils' so that it's clear that the old will no longer applies. A solicitor can help you to get the wording right, ensuring that your new will legally replace the old one.

When Do Beneficiaries of a Will Get Notified?

A will becomes a public document once probate is granted. At this point, beneficiaries can be told that they're named in the will. This is when you'll have the chance to see the document itself.

Before probate is granted, you might find out if you're a will beneficiary. The executor is in charge of managing the will, and they might choose to inform the beneficiaries before probate is granted.

Getting a Will Witnessed

A will needs to be properly witnessed. Witnesses ensure that the will hasn't been signed under duress, that it was signed by the person that it applies to and that they were in sound mind.

Who Can Witness a Will?

When a will is signed, two witnesses need to be present. These witnesses must be independent adults, not family members or those with something to gain.

Witnesses must watch as the will is signed, then must add their names to the will to show that they were present at the time. By adding their name, your witness makes a legal claim that they saw you sign the will willingly. They only need to see the will being signed, not the process of it being written.

All witnesses must be over 18 and can’t include family members, your spouse, or any will beneficiaries. If you go to a solicitor, they’ll usually have two members of staff to be your witnesses. Otherwise, you can have your will witnesses wherever you choose to sign it, by people you’ve chosen and invited.

Witnesses must be of sound mind, and for obvious reasons, they can’t be blind or partially sighted.

Who Stores a Copy of the Will?

A will doesn’t need to be stored anywhere specific. You can store a DIY will at home, as long as you leave it where it can be found, and make people aware of its existence. You need to make sure that your will can be accessed quickly after your death.

If your will is written by a solicitor, they can keep it safe on your behalf. They may, or may not, charge a fee for this service. If a solicitor stores your will, you’ll typically be given a copy.

Wills can be lodged with the Probate Service, keeping them safe and secure. There’s a small fee for this, and you must make a request if you want to withdraw your will again. You’ll be given a Certificate of Deposit, and you’ll need this to withdraw your will whilst you’re alive. Upon your death, this same certificate gives your executor their access.

Should You Make a Will Online?

Making a will online is risky. If your will is likely to be simple, or if you don’t have dependents that rely on you getting things right, then it could save you some money. Careful wording is required to make sure your will is legally valid.

You’ll still need to make sure that two witnesses watch the moment your will is signed.

If you’re unsure how to write your will, or if it’s very important that your will is accepted as a correct legal document, it’s best to seek out professional will-writing help. Whilst a DIY will is often cheap and easy, there’s a higher risk of something going wrong and making things more difficult for loved ones.

What Are the Dangers of Making a Will Online?

A will made online can be legal and binding, just like the one that’s written in a solicitor’s office. As long as your will has been written correctly and signed in the presence of two independent witnesses, it will hold after your death.

An online will is often cheaper than any other alternative, but there are risks to going down this route.

If you’re choosing to make a will online, know the risks and take extra precautions.

Making a Will Online, Where Are Your Details Going?

If you’re writing your will online, make sure you trust the service that you’re using. Wills include a lot of private and personal details you won’t want to share with scammers.

Making a Will Online, Does Your Will Contain the Proper Wording?

If parts of your will contradict each other, or if anything’s left open to interpretation, probate may not be granted. Your will should be crystal clear, with nothing confusing, so it’s obvious what your wishes were. 

Making a Will Online, Are There Any Mistakes?

Make sure that your will is free from errors and mistakes. You can ask a solicitor to review your will if you’re unsure. Remember that mistakes might not be noticed until you’ve already passed away, and by then, it’s too late to make things right or explain what you actually meant.

Making a Will Online, Where Will Your Online Will Be Stored?

If you’ve written your will online, you need to decide where you’ll store it. Often, people taking the DIY route simply store their will in their own homes, but this puts it at more risk of being lost or damaged. Consider storing your will with the Probate Service to keep it more secure.

Making a Will Online, What Do You Want?

If you’re leaving everything you own to your spouse, your will should be relatively simple. You might get away with a DIY or online will. If you want to split your estate between two or more beneficiaries, things become more complicated. Here’s where an online will might not be enough to get things right.

Should I Be Making a Will Without a Solicitor?

A solicitor has the knowledge and experience to help you create a valid will. Solicitors know what you should include and which words should be used to state your wishes.

When you make a will with a solicitor, they’ll make sure you’ve considered everything you should, and your document is legally binding. They might make you aware of things you hadn’t thought about or alert you to any issues that might arise.

Making a will without a solicitor is a valid option. As long as your will has been written by you and then signed in the presence of two witnesses, it can be used as a legal document to guide how your estate is managed. Of course, if there are any errors or problems, then probate may not be granted.

What Are the Dangers of Making a Will Without a Solicitor?

Solicitors are the professionals. They know what should be included in a will, what shouldn’t, and how it should be worded. They might think of things that you hadn’t considered and things you hadn’t even thought to mention. If a will is particularly complicated, a solicitor can help it to make sense. During a meeting with a solicitor, you’ll get to talk about your wishes. Back-and-forth conversation is a valuable tool, helping you to work out what you want.

Whilst many people think about passing their estate to the people that they want as beneficiaries, sometimes it’s just as important to make sure that certain people don’t get hands-on on your property. A solicitor can help not just with expressing your positive wishes but also with making sure that you’ve properly protected what you own from other people that might try to stake a claim.

For all but the most basic of wills, a solicitor’s a valuable resource. If you make a will without a solicitor, there’s a higher risk of an error.

A solicitor’s service may cost more, but it simplifies the will-making process. You can be sure that your will is error-free and expresses your wishes correctly, whilst on-site witnesses and storing services save you from a lot of extra trouble.

Making a Will: A Comprehensive Checklist

However you’re making your will, there are some simple things that you can do to make sure that you’re doing things correctly.

Ten Things You Should Always Do and Check

When writing your will, always check these ten things:

1 - Who Are Your Executors?

Executors can be beneficiaries. To ensure that your will stays valid, it might help to choose multiple people. Or, you can choose an initial executor and a back-up. If your executor dies before your will has been dealt with, there’s nobody to act on your behalf.

Many people choose their spouse as their executor, but there’s a chance that you’ll both die at the same time. If your executor dies before you, remember to update your will with someone new to take this role.

2 - What’s Included in Your Estate?

You should know what your estate includes and have its value in mind. Unless you’re making a simple will to give everything to just one person, you may need to divide your estate and decide who’s getting each gift. Remember to consider physical assets, property, cars, money, stocks, and shares. Also, consider any debts that will need to be paid off as your highest priority.

3 - Who Are Your Beneficiaries?

Make sure you’ve included everyone you want to include as a will beneficiary. Anyone left out might not get anything at all.

4 - How Will Your Estate Be Shared?

Will you give everything to one person? Will you share your estate equally between multiple people? Will you give specific gifts to specific people? After gifts have been given to the correct recipients, your ‘residuary estate’ is what’s left and can be given to somebody else.

5 - What Happens to Your Dependents?

If you’re a parent, what would happen to your child if they were left orphaned? Use your will to specify who should become your child’s legal guardian.

6 - Have You Chosen the Right Witnesses?

Are your witnesses over 18? Are they independent adults, not standing to benefit from your will? Family members and will beneficiaries aren’t valid witnesses for wills.

7 - Has Your Will Been Signed and Dated?

Your will doesn’t just need to be signed. Also make sure that you add the date that you’ve signed the will to make it valid.

8 - Are Both Witnesses in Attendance?

Your witnesses must watch the moment you sign your will. You can’t sign your will and then ask them to witness it later. They must be in attendance, watching as you sign your will. Then, they need to add their own names to show that they witnessed the moment.

9 - Is Your Will in Good Physical Condition?

Make sure that your will is clearly written and can be easily read. Never staple any documents, including additions, to your will. If items are stapled to your will but later removed, it might look like someone has tampered with your will. If pages accidentally rip from the staples, leaving scraps of paper behind, it might look like things are missing. Any marks can cast some doubt over the accuracy of the document.

10 - Where Is Your Will Being Stored?

You can store your will anywhere you want, but make sure that your executor knows where it can be found. It should be somewhere they can access it easily, before probate has been granted. If you store your will at home, consider the risk of damage or your will being lost.

What Should You Never Include in Your Will?

There are some things that you shouldn’t include in your will. Adding them might not be a problem and they may just be ignored, but there’s a chance they could create confusion and may invalidate your will:

Funeral Requests

Whilst you might want to specify whether you’d prefer to be buried or cremated, don’t bulk out your will with specific requests like what songs should be played at your funeral. A will isn’t the place for detailed funeral requests.

Joint Property

When you pass away, any jointly held property automatically becomes the surviving holder’s. If you share the property with your spouse, you can’t pass it on to someone else whilst your spouse is still alive to own it.

Life Insurance

If you have a life insurance policy, you will already have specified a beneficiary for your life insurance pay-out. This is separate from your estate, so it shouldn’t be included in your will.


If you have a pension, like life insurance, you’ll already have chosen beneficiaries. This does not need to be included in your will.


Gifts must be given without conditions. You can’t say, for example, that your son will receive £20,000 if he marries a specific person (or if he marries at all!). Don’t attach conditions to the gifts in your will.

Gifts for Pets

Your pets are your property but cannot own property. Don’t name your pets as beneficiaries. Instead, consider who you’ll trust to look after them once you’re gone, and consider gifting the relevant person with money to fund the pet’s care.

Does Making a Will Avoid Inheritance Tax?

If you leave everything to your spouse or civil partner, you can avoid paying any Inheritance Tax. Otherwise, Inheritance Tax must be paid if your estate value is over the threshold.

What Is Inheritance Tax?

Inheritance Tax is paid on your estate at a rate of 40%, over the tax-free threshold that currently stands at £325,000. If your estate is worth less than this, you won’t pay Inheritance Tax. If your estate is worth more, tax is paid at 40% for anything over the threshold.

Can You Avoid Inheritance Tax?

You can’t avoid Inheritance Tax unless you leave everything to your spouse or civil partner. However, there are ways to raise the threshold at which you start paying this tax if you leave everything to your children or grandchildren, your threshold increases to £500,000.

Inheritance Tax is paid before beneficiaries receive what you’ve left for them. The executor deals with Inheritance Tax before they distribute the gifts.

Protecting Your Estate With a Will

When you die, you want as much of your estate as possible to go to the people you love and your chosen beneficiaries. Your estate is made up of hard-earned property and funds, so it’s well worth protecting.

Including Your Spouse in Your Will

If you give everything directly to your spouse or civil partner, no Inheritance Tax will be paid. This is the easiest way to protect your estate.

Including Your Children in Your Will

If your children benefit from your estate, your Inheritance Tax threshold rises. You’ll only pay Inheritance Tax on any value above £500,000, rather than the usual £325,000.

You can choose to pass your property on to your surviving spouse, who can then pass anything on to your children in their will.

Including Your Stepchildren in Your Will

For purposes of Inheritance Tax, stepchildren are treated in the same way as biological children. The Inheritance Tax threshold is raised to £500,000.

Including Your Friends in Your Will

Giving to friends does not provide any exemption from Inheritance Tax, nor does it increase the threshold. You can name your friends as will beneficiaries, even above your family if you’d prefer. However, your surviving spouse or children might make a claim against your estate after your death. You may want to include a note with your will, to explain why you made this decision.

Can You Leave Money in Your Will to Your Friends?

Not all countries allow people to leave gifts to those, not in their family. British law allows you to leave gifts to whoever you want. You can leave money in your will to your friends or could list specific items or property you’d like them to have.

Passing on Your Wealth

Whatever you’ve worked hard for in life, you likely want to pass on to the people you love. Passing on your wealth can give your loved ones the money for life after you’re gone. Often, people receive more than they need as gifts when people pass away. You’ll want as much of your money as possible to stay with the people you care about.

Protecting Your Estate From the Taxman

If you pass your estate on to your spouse, there will be no Inheritance Tax to pay if you pass it to your children, stepchildren, or grandchildren, the Inheritance Tax threshold increases. You can also give some of your estates to charity to bring the value under the threshold.

In certain circumstances, it’s also possible to put money into a Trust to protect it from the taxman. Money in a Trust is no longer subject to Inheritance Tax, as it’s no longer part of your estate. However, the Trust may need to pay Inheritance Tax of its own or to pay other types of tax like Income Tax or Capital Gains Tax.

Passing Your Estate On to Your Family

If you pass the estate onto your children, stepchildren, or grandchildren, the Inheritance Tax threshold increases from £325,000 to £500,000. For tax purposes, all other family members (apart from a spouse or civil partner) do not increase the tax threshold.

Can You Release Inheritance Early?

You can choose to give gifts whilst you’re alive. If you die within seven years, Inheritance Tax may need to be paid on the value of the gift. If you live for seven years after giving the gift, it’s then free from Inheritance Tax. Gifts are limited to £3,000 per year, and your annual exemption can be carried over for a year.

Over time, you could slowly gift your estate whilst you’re still alive. Just make sure that the recipient’s aware that this could result in Inheritance Tax being due at a later date.

If you’re giving inheritance gifts, make sure to record the value of the gift, who you gave it to, and when you gave it. This makes it easier for your will executor to see what tax needs to be paid.

What Is Probate?

In simple terms, probate is the proving of a will. Once probate has been granted, a will is legal and accepted. It can then be made public and start to be acted upon.

An executor should use the will and apply for probate, giving them permission to act upon it and access the deceased’s accounts and properties.

How Can Money Savings Advice Help You With Making a Will?

Here at Money Savings Advice, we have partnered with one of the UK’s leading Will-writing companies, and they are members of The Society of Will Writers, and they have already helped thousands of our readers get the right Will in place.

Choosing an independent adviser means they won’t recommend a scheme unless they are sure it is in your best interests. Their advice is also regulated by the FCA, which gives you an additional layer of protection.

If you would like to speak to them, click on the button below, answer the very straight forward questions.

Money Savings Advice Author Ian Lewis

Ian Lewis

Ian Lewis is one of our specialist financial writers. Ian has over 15 years of financial writing experience, having worked for some of the largest financial publications in the UK covering topics from mortgages, equity release, loans and financial claims, to name a few.

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