Follow the Queen’s lead: make sure you have a will


As the UK comes to terms with the death of Queen Elizabeth after 70 years on the throne, few can be impressed by how smoothly and efficiently the royal family handled the succession from mother to son. Many arrangements have been in place for years, with no detail overlooked. The shock of the Queen’s death was not compounded by the chaos and uncertainty.

It will certainly not be the same for the majority of King Charles III’s subjects, 59% of whom do not even have a will.

It’s a common misconception that there’s no point in making a will if all you’re likely to leave your loved ones is a pile of unpaid bills. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition to stating who gets what of your assets, your will can state your wishes for custody of your children or any dependents. Your will should also name an executor, who is legally authorized to act on your behalf after your death. This can be either the lawyer who wrote the will or a trusted family member or friend. Without a legal representative, there will be no way to fend off your creditors or maintain any mortgage payments you may have been responsible for.

Although writing a will may seem like an expensive undertaking (no pun intended), there is a way to have one drafted by a qualified attorney completely free of charge. The UK has a program called “Free Will Month”, and the next one starts on October 3. To participate, you must be aged 55 or over and the will must be fairly straightforward.

Since 2007, it has been possible to transfer any unused part of a deceased person’s inheritance tax relief to their surviving spouse. This simplified drafting of the will, because the default, even for relatively wealthy couples, is the so-called “mirror will”, according to which everything is left to the surviving spouse.

There is, of course, an ulterior motive to offering to write wills for free. The program is sponsored by a group of leading charities who pay a fee for each will drafted to participating lawyers. Charities hope people writing their wills will include a bequest to a favored organization. There is no obligation to do so, but these charitable bequests can be tax efficient.

Even if you don’t want to use the plan, the group’s will writing guide is a useful tool to understand what is required.

If you are under 55 and therefore not eligible for free will month, specialist online providers can provide you with a basic will at an affordable price, ranging from 20 pounds ($23). If your situation is more complex, perhaps because you want certain assets to be held in trust for minor children, it’s worth hiring a lawyer to make sure your will accurately reflects your intentions. Writing wills is not an explicitly regulated activity, so there is more protection with a qualified lawyer.

It is important to update wills to reflect major life changes – usually marriage, divorce, births and deaths, as such events will likely affect who you may want to leave things to or who should have responsibility for your dependents.

Dying intestate, that is, without a will, is a cruel thing to inflict on your loved ones, especially if you have an unmarried partner. The briefest of web searches will reveal many painful stories of family members who suffered loss while coping not only with grief, but also fending off creditors. Even if there is money to pay the bills of the deceased and his funeral, without an executor, no one is allowed to do so.

In the UK, without a pre-named executor, your next of kin must obtain a document called a Grant of Letters of Administration from the Probate Registry to settle your affairs. Not much can be done without it and it may take a year or more just to get to that point. In the meantime, creditors will grow increasingly impatient and it will no longer be possible to alienate or distribute property. The administration of an estate whose liabilities exceed the assets of the deceased can be particularly complicated and painful.

More generally, the process of informing institutions about a death has improved in recent years. The government has a Tell Us Once service where news can be submitted, and it will notify each relevant agency. There is also a service called Bereavement Registry, which will remove the name of the deceased from many mailing lists. Nevertheless, trying to administer the affairs of a person who died intestate can be a grueling and time-consuming process.

No one likes to contemplate their own mortality, which is why so many people don’t make a will. But death is traumatic enough for those who survive you, so please follow the Queen’s lead and prepare yourself properly for the only certainty of life.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Tourists will love the yen. Will Japan love them back? : Gearoid Reidy

• King Charles’ late reign can still be fruitful: Martin Ivens

• Britain is on the wrong track on energy rescue: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stuart Trow is co-host of “Money, Money, Money” on Switch Radio and author of “The Bluffer’s Guide to Economics.” Previously, he was a strategist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

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