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Key workers have become much more prominent during the coronavirus crisis. The list of ‘key’ occupations surprisingly included solicitors “acting in connection with the execution of wills”. Like many of the other unexpected members of the list, their presence becomes clear once you stop to think about it.
Some solicitors’ firms saw double the normal number of enquiries about will writing just as the lockdown started in March, according to the Law Society. Many people discovered that having a will suddenly moved up their list of priorities from ‘do-it-later’ to ‘do-it-now’. Writing a will forces people to recognise their own mortality, which is why deferral and delay so often sets in. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided enough additional incentive to prompt many people into action.
However, difficulties with last minute solutions are a reminder of why it is much better to prepare in advance. For example, in England and Wales, the Wills Act 1837 requires the signature of the person making the will to be witnessed by two people who are physically present at the signing – video links do not count, according to the Ministry of Justice.
To complicate matters further in a time of social distancing, neither witness should be a beneficiary under the will, because it would invalidate their entitlement. Northern Ireland takes the same approach, although in Scotland the law only requires a single witness and the rules have been amended to allow for video witnessing.
Over half of the British adult population currently do not have a will. If you are part of that majority, then the rules of intestacy (which vary between the four constituents of the UK) will determine how your estate will be distributed on your death. Whether those rules are appropriate will depend upon your personal circumstances. But you should bear in mind that the intestacy rules do not automatically pass everything to a surviving spouse or civil partner if there are children, nor do they make any provision for unmarried partners.
Having a will lets you decide who receives what from your estate and can also control when and how benefits are distributed if you use a trust. For example, you may not want your children to inherit outright at 18.
Ideally your will should form the cornerstone of your estate planning. We can work with you and your legal advisers to develop a structure that meets your long-term goals as tax-efficiently as possible. The inheritance tax rules are particularly relevant at present because various changes look likely to be announced in this autumn’s Budget. However, you shouldn’t regard these expected tax changes as a reason to procrastinate. In fact, it is more important to act now and review lifetime planning options, which could become less attractive if the proposed reforms currently being considered take effect.
Even if you do have a will, don’t file it away and forget it. A will, like any other piece of financial planning, needs to be reviewed regularly to reflect both changes in your circumstances and to tax rules.
The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate will writing, trusts and some forms of estate planning. The Financial Conduct Authority does not regulate tax advice, and tax laws can change.
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This piece is for general information only and is not intended to be advice to any specific person. You are recommended to seek competent professional advice before taking or refraining from taking any action on the basis of the contents of this publication. The piece represents our understanding of law and HMRC practice.