What actually is a will?

A will is a binding testamentary document that allows a testator to appoint executors to administer their estate and dispose of it to the beneficiaries chosen by the testator.

  • A testamentary document is a document taken to be proof of your wishes to be followed on your death.

  • The testator is the person making the will. If it’s your will that’s being referred to, then you are the testator.

  • The executors are the people (it’s best to have more than one) that you have chosen to look after your affairs. They ‘execute’ the will in accordance with your wishes.

  • Your estate is everything you own – money, property, assets and other possessions - minus everything you owe.

  • The beneficiaries are the people who you are leaving something to in your will, whether it is money, assets, individual items, or you are letting them off a debt.

Or in other words:

Your will is the formal document that sets out what is to happen to your property and possessions when you die. It is a legal document that is binding on your executors – which means that they don’t have any choice whether or not to follow it.

There are plenty of reasons to make a will. In fact, it’s almost better to ask, ‘Why wouldn’t you have a will?’

A will only takes effect on the death of the person who made it and can be revoked at any time before then.

If you don't have a valid will you are said to be intestate. This means that neither you nor anyone else – except the law – has control over what happens to your property after your death. This is not an ideal situation, for many reasons.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that!

How is your will set out?

A will is usually divided into clauses, and they generally fall into a normal pattern:

  • introductory clauses which identify you and your executors;

  • your funeral wishes;

  • appointing guardians for your children who have not yet reached 18;

  • specific gifts of money, property, possessions and other assets;

  • the creation of trusts of property or assets;

  • gifts to charities;

  • disposing of the remainder – known as the residuary estate;

  • administrative provisions, to do with the interpretation of the will; and

  • execution provisions – the part where you and your witnesses sign.

It can be a very short document, or a very long one. The more complicated your estate, and the more people you want to benefit from it, the longer your will is likely to be.

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