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The horror of dying without a will – David Bowie knew better


David Bowie and his wife, supermodel Iman

David Bowie and his wife, supermodel Iman

AFP/Getty Images

David Bowie and his wife, supermodel Iman

David Bowie left a will. Because of this, and the fact that he had years of planning for his taxes, his multi-million pound estate is reckoned to face very little in death taxes (called Inheritance Tax in the UK.)

After over 20 years of practice, and some personal as well as professional experience, my article today is to highlight why you must make a will – and make the appointment this month.

When we hear that an appalling 54% of us die without having made a will it shows that people do not realise just how important this simple matter is.

Here are a few tips gleaned over the years:

Do you want the government rules to dictate who gets your stuff when you die?  This is what happens if you do not have a valid will.  People like are said to die intestate.  Then the government rules set down who gets what.  It might not be how you want it.  Do you want to hand that much power to the government?

Don’t assume you can relax because ‘sure everything will go to my spouse.’  Firstly this may not be correct depending on where in the UK you live and how much you were worth, including the house.  Secondly – and this is important – you don’t know that you will die first.  Whoever is left on their own – f they die without a will then the intestacy rules will be very important.

Based on the above point it is vital that both parties to a marriage or civil partnership make wills.  And of course is you are not in either of these, the ‘other half’ will get nothing on your death if you have no will.

Making a will is easy.  I made my first one in my early twenties.  By making a will you achieve two things.  Firstly you have set out who should get what.  Secondly if your circumstances, or opinions, change, you have a clear incentive to get down to the solicitor and change your will.  A simple will should cost no more than a couple of hundred pounds.

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Don’t use a will kit you download or buy in a shop.  It is true that you could use one and it may end up being a valid will.  However a lot of these are faulty in some way, and this is usually discovered when it is too late – you are dead!  Then the cost of sorting things out will be far greater than a few quid given to your local solicitor to make a proper will.

A witness to your will cannot benefit from it.  That would make the will invalid.  However the executor (the person you ask to handle tidying up your estate) CAN benefit under the will.

Intestacy – who inherits what is set out in a handy ready reckoner here. Note the rules are different according to which part of the UK the deceased was living in.  Apart from Scotland, if the estate is worth no more than £250,000 then the spouse gets everything, but MUST live for 28 days after the first death.

Do NOT have your solicitor or accountant as one of your executors.  They may make a very convincing argument about how sensible it is.  From very painful personal experience I can state that this is a bad idea.  It means that solicitor or professional advisor must be involved in the handling of the estate.  This could mean higher fees than necessary.  Far better is to have other trusted friends or relatives as executors.  Tell them by all means get legal help with the job.  But get a fee quote from your solicitor, and get a couple of others too.  That way you can ensure not too much money goes in fees.

Inheritance Tax (IHT) planning can be important, especially if your estate as an individual or a couple exceeds £650,000.  However do not let concerns over this tax prevent you from making a will.  Get that first will made, even if you later change it when you have someone look at the IHT situation.

Make sure your nearest and dearest know where the will is located - the safe of your solicitor is a good idea.  Also tell them who will be your executors (though you don’t have to tell everyone that).

Why did I say make your solicitor appointment this month?  Simples.  To avoid further procrastinating.  Get on with it. 

Death is too important to leave to chance!

Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – www.huston.co.uk or 028 9080 6080.