As the UK comes to terms with the death of Queen Elizabeth after 70 years on the throne, few can fail to be impressed by how smoothly and efficiently the royal family has handled the succession from mother to son. Many of the arrangements have been in place for years, with no detail overlooked. The shock of the Queen’s death has not been compounded by chaos and uncertainty.
The same will almost certainly not be true for the majority of King Charles III’s subjects, 59% of whom do not even have a will.
It is a common misconception that there is little point in making a will if all you are likely to leave to your loved ones is a pile of unpaid bills. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As well as stating who gets what of your belongings, your will can set out your wishes for the care of your children or any dependents. Your will should also appoint an executor, who is legally authorized to act on your behalf after you have died. This can either be the solicitor who drew up the will, or a trusted family member or friend. Without a legal representative, there will be no means of fighting off your creditors or maintaining mortgage payments you may have been responsible for.
While writing a will might sound like an expensive undertaking (no pun intended), there is a way to have one written by a qualified solicitor entirely free of charge. The UK has a scheme called “free wills month,” and the next one begins Oct. 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 portion of a deceased person’s inheritance tax allowance to their surviving spouse. This simplified will writing, as the default for even relatively wealthy couples has been the so-called “mirror will,” whereby everything is left to the surviving spouse.
There is, of course, an ulterior motive in offering to write wills for free. The scheme is sponsored by a group of leading charities that pay a fee for each will written to participating solicitors. The charities are hoping that people writing their wills will include a bequest to a favored organization. There is no obligation to do so, but such charitable bequests can be tax efficient.
Even if you do not wish to use the scheme, the group’s will writing guide is a useful tool to understand what is required.
If you are younger than 55, and therefore not eligible for free wills month, specialist online providers can provide you with a basic will at an affordable price, ranging up from 20 pounds ($23). If your situation is more complex, perhaps because you wish certain assets to be held in trust for minor children, it is worth the additional expense of engaging a solicitor to ensure your will accurately reflects your intentions. Will writing is not an explicitly regulated activity, so there is more protection with a qualified solicitor.
It is important to update wills to reflect major life changes — typically marriage, divorce, births and deaths, as such events will likely affect who you might want to leave stuff to or who should have responsibility for your dependents.
Dying intestate, that is without a will, is a cruel thing to inflict upon your loved ones, most especially if you have an unmarried partner. The briefest of web searches will reveal many painful stories of family members who have suffered a loss coping, not just with grief, but also fending off creditors. Even if there is money to pay the deceased’s bills and their funeral, without an executor, nobody is authorized to do so.
In the UK, without a pre-appointed executor, your next of kin needs to obtain a document called a grant of letters of administration from the probate registry to settle your affairs. Little can be done without this and it can take a year or more just to get to this stage. In the meantime, creditors will become increasingly impatient and it will not be possible to dispose of or distribute property. Administering an estate where the liabilities exceed the deceased’s assets can be especially complicated and distressing.
More generally, the process of informing institutions about a death has improved in recent years. The government has a Tell Us Once Service where one can submit the news, and it will inform every relevant agency. There is also a service called the Bereavement Register, which will remove the deceased’s name from many mailing lists. Nevertheless, attempting to administer the affairs of someone who has died intestate can be an awful, drawn out process.
Nobody enjoys contemplating their own mortality, which is why so many people do not make a will. But death is traumatic enough for those who survive you, so please, follow the Queen’s example and make proper preparations for life’s only certainty.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 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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