Since my dad’s funeral earlier this year, I’ve been acting as executor to his estate. What this means in real terms is lots of paperwork, lots of forms, and lots of dealing with lawyers. I’ve learned a lot about intestacy law, probate, inheritance tax, and more, but what I thought I’d share with you today are some things I’ve learned about Wills.
Note: This blog post discusses the duties of an executor in a way that some people might find disrespectful to the deceased. No disrespect is intended; this is just the way that I write. If you’re offended: screw you.
Here are 4 things you should do when writing a Will (which my dad didn’t):
1. Keep it up-to-date
What you should do: So long as you’re happy with the broader clauses in your will, there’s no need to change it frequently. But if there’s information that’s clearly missing or really out-of-date, it ought to be fixed.
What my dad did: My dad’s Will was ten and a half years old at the time of his death. In the intervening time, at least five important things had happened that he’d failed to account for:
- He’d bought himself a flat. Unlike his other real estate, he’d not made specific mention of the flat in his Will, so it fell into his “everything else goes to…” clause. We can only assume that this is what he intended – it seems likely – but specific clarification would have been preferable!
- I changed my name. This was a whole five years before he died, but his Will still refers to me by my birth name (which wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except for the issue listed below under “State your relationships”).
- I moved house. Seven times. The address for me (under my old name, remember) on my dad’s Will is one that I lived in for less than six months, and over a decade ago. That’s a challenging thing to prove, when it’s needed! Any of the addresses I lived at in the intervening 10+ years would have been an improvement.
- The ownership model of a company in which he was the founder and a large shareholder changed: whereas previously it was a regular limited-by-shares company, it had become in those ten years an employee-owned company, whose articles require that shares are held only by employees. This posed an inheritance conundrum for the beneficiaries of these shares, for a while, who did not want to sell – and could not legitimately keep – them. Like everything else, we resolved it in the end, but it’s the kind of thing that could have been a lot easier.
- His two daughters – my sisters – became adults. If there’s somebody in your Will who’s under 18, you really ought to re-check that your Will is still accurate when they turn 18. The legacies in my dad’s Will about my sisters and I are identical, but had he died, for example, after the shares-change above but before my youngest sister became an adult, things could have gotten very complicated.
2. State your relationships
What you should do: When you use somebody’s name for the first time, especially if it’s a family member, state their relationship to you. For example, you might write “To my daughter, Jane Doe, of 1 Somewhere Street, Somewhereville, SM3 4RE…”. This makes your intentions crystal clear and provides a safety net in finding and validating the identity of your executors, trustees, and beneficiaries.
What my dad did: In my dad’s Will, he doesn’t once refer to the relationship that any person has to him. This might not be a problem in itself – it’s only a safety net, after all – if it weren’t for the fact that I changed my name and moved house. This means that I, named as an executor and a beneficiary of my dad’s Will, am not referred to in it either my by name, nor by my address, nor by my relationship. It might as well be somebody else!
To work around this, I’ve had to work to prove that I was known by my old name, that I did live at that address at the time that the Will was written, and that he did mean me when he wrote it. And I’ve had to do that every single time I contacted anybody who was responsible for any of my dad’s assets. That’s a job that gets old pretty quickly.
3. Number every page, and initial or sign each
What you should do: If your Will runs onto multiple pages, and especially if you’ll be printing it onto multiple sheets of paper (rather than, for example, duplexing a two-page Will onto two sides of the same sheet of paper), you should probably put page numbers on. And you should sign, or at least initial, the bottom of each page. This helps to reduce the risk that somebody can tamper with the Will by adding or removing pages.
What my dad did: My dad’s will is only dated and signed at the end, and the pages are completely un-numbered. It clearly hasn’t been tampered with (members of the family have seen it before; a duplicate copy was filed elsewhere; and we’ve even found the original document it was printed from), but if somebody had wanted to, it would have been a lot easier than it might have been if he had followed this guideline. It would have also made it a lot easier when he made an even bigger mistake, below (see “Never restaple it”).
4. Never restaple it
What you should do: Fasten the pages of your Will together with a single staple. If the staple bends or isn’t in the right place, destroy the entire Will and re-print: it’s only a few sheets of extra paper, the planet will cope. A Will with additional staple marks looks like a forgery, because it’s possible that pages were changed (especially if you didn’t number and/or sign every page) after the fact.
What my dad did: His biggest mistake in his Will (after failing to identify me in an easily-recognisable manner) was to – as far as we can see – print it, staple it, remove the staple, and re-staple it. It was the very first thing I noticed when I saw it, and it was among the first things out lawyers noticed too. In order to ensure that they can satisfy the Probate Registry, our lawyers then had to chase down the witnesses to the signing of the Will and get statements from them that they believed that it hadn’t been tampered with. Who’d have thought that two little holes could cause so much work?
I could have made this list longer. I originally started with a list of nine things that my dad had done when he wrote his Will that are now making my job a lot harder than it might have been, but I cut it down to these four, because they’re the four that have caused the most unnecessary work for me.
Unless your estate is really complicated, you don’t need a solicitor to write a Will: you just need to do a little reading and use a little common sense. I’m a big fan of people doing their own legal paperwork (hence my service to help people change their names for free), but if you’re going to write your own Will, you might like to do half an hour’s background reading, first. This stuff is important.
When I first looked at the task of acting as my father’s executor, after his death, I thought “I can have this all wrapped up in eight months.” That was six months ago, and there’s probably another six months or more in it, yet. I heard from a friend that they call it “The Executor’s Year”, and now I can see why. We’re getting there, but it’s taking a long time.
Even when all the crying’s done and the bereaved are getting on with their lives, the executor’s always got more to do. So please, for the sake of your executor: check today that your Will doesn’t make any of these four mistakes! They’ll thank you, even though you won’t live to hear it.
Update 01-Sep-2012: corrected a typo.