A person’s Will may be the single most important legal document they ever prepare. But, they will not be alive to see it come into effect.
A Will deals with what someone owns, who is to get it, wishes for funeral arrangements, requests in relation to guardianship of any minor children, and the people trusted to bring that all into effect. The importance of the document really can’t be overstated, but statistics show that many people are in the dark about the important function a Will performs, or do not wish to face up to their own mortality by contemplating their death.
Recent research by Royal London and Macmillan Cancer Support has found that:
• As many as 54% of adults do not have a Will;
• 1.5 million people who did have a Will in place may have accidentally voided it by getting married since making that Will; and
• 5.4 million adults have no idea how to go about making their Will.
Making a Will is not the end of the story however. A Will is only of use if the original can be located after the Will maker has died. Sadly, finding the original Will is not always easy.
Most clients are advised by their solicitors to leave the original Will with the firm, and to let their family and executors know where the original is held. In that way, the firm can keep the document securely and ensure that it is only released to the correct executors after the Will maker’s death. The firm is also then able to advise the executors on the process of administration. The difficulty with this arrangement is that the firm may move, merge or close making it difficult to track down the Will years later (although the Solicitors Regulation Authority should be able to help to identify what has happened to a firm).
Not all clients choose to leave their original Will with solicitors though – sometimes preferring to keep the original at home, or with their bank. These arrangements can be risky as people often misplace the document, accidentally throw it away, or change banks without claiming the documents held. This can make administration of the deceased’s estate much more complicated, as the executors will have to try to locate the original document. If it cannot be found, this might leave open questions about whether it was intentionally destroyed or simply lost – and if the latter, then the executors may have to try to admit a draft or reconstructed copy to the Probate Registry for approval. These applications can involve a lot of additional cost and time delays which could otherwise have been avoided.
Recent headlines about the great Aretha Franklin’s estate have shown how easily documents can be lost. Ms Franklin had been involved in litigation in her later years, and apparently the relationship with her legal advisers had broken down. Possibly as a result of this poor relationship, Ms Franklin chose to prepare handwritten documents herself instead of a final single professionally drafted Will. When she died, her family and solicitors found three different documents. Two of the documents were found locked away in a safe at Ms Franklin’s home, with a further document hidden in the home under a pile of cushions. The documents themselves are now likely to be subject to scrutiny in order to determine whether they are valid Wills, but at least being able to find them at all means Ms Franklin’s last wishes can be known and considered.
The simplest method to make sure a Will is secure is to leave it with the solicitor who prepared it, and to notify family and executors where it is. It may be worth providing a photocopy to the executors directly. Registration of the Will using The National Will Register is also a great idea to ensure the Will can be found. The National Will Register is the Law Society of England and Wales trusted partner and provider of a National Will Register where Will makers record that they have made a Will, and where the original Will is located. Family and executors can request a search of The National Will Register and easily find the document. The costs of such a search would ordinarily be treated as an estate expense, and so paid from the estate funds rather than by the executors personally.
Preparing a Will is an important step in the estate planning process. Registering the document and notifying the relevant parties is the best way to ensure that the effort of preparing the Will is not wasted.
This article was written by David Wedgwood, Partner at Anthony Gold, member of Certainty Contentious Probate Hub & Area.