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Missing Wills and messy estates make fantastic Victorian mystery-drama novels, there’s no denying that. Dickens’ Bleak House springs to mind, so does Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (love you, Marian Halcombe). There’s always drama, normally a long-lost relative sailing over from overseas, some dastardly villain scheming after the virtuous hero’s birthright. There’s lost letters, family secrets discussed in hushed tones by the fireside, eavesdropping servants and grand Victorian mansions. Very dramatic, very entertaining, very engrossing. I’m all over it – absolutely love to be tantalized.
It’s fantastic – in fiction. What you don’t want to do is find that fiction a reality. How much simpler so many novels would be if they’d have just sorted out a proper Will and kept it safe. Bleak House would have been like 5 sentences long. After you’ve died, you don’t want to leave everyone in a big mess worthy of a Dickensian novel. You need to get yourself prepared – you need a Will.
Why do I need a Will?
If you die without leaving a Will you might leave those closest to you with nothing. Not a peanut. Sounds brutal, but it’s true. The fancy legal term for someone who dies without a Will is ‘intestate’. If you die intestate, you have no control over what happens to your estate. There’s a set of complicated rules – the rules of intestacy – that decide what happens. I’ll untangle these later on.
Want to hear a joke? What’s black and white and lives by the letter of the law? The rules of intestacy. Not one of my best, I’ll admit. The rules of intestacy don’t take your feelings and wishes into account, is what I’m trying to get at. Everything either is or isn’t, and the law decides what’s what. Personal circumstance isn’t taken into consideration.
Say for example you’re estranged from your family and you live miles away with the love of your life. You haven’t spoken to your family in years. You live with your partner, but you aren’t married – never got round to it. If you suddenly pop your clogs and you haven’t got a Will, the rules of intestacy would give your family everything, even though you’ve cut all contact. I’m guessing you’d much prefer your partner to inherit your estate, wouldn’t you? Too late! You’re already dead, rules of intestacy have taken over. They get nothing. Suck it up buttercup.
If you want to make sure that your estate goes exactly where you want it to go, you need a Will. With a Will, you get to choose exactly what happens to your stuff when you die. Avoid the rules of intestacy, if you can. It’s a complicated, messy process and it could leave those closest to you penniless.
What are the rules of intestacy?
So, when you die without a Will, you die intestate. The rules of intestacy are the rules that then decide what happens to your estate. If you die without a Will, the rules will be followed. (That sounds really threatening, doesn’t it? I just read it back and got shivers.)
Under the rules of intestacy, only certain people are entitled to your estate. Only legal family can inherit. I said earlier everything’s black and white – if someone isn’t officially connected to you in a legal sense, then they won’t get diddly-squat. That includes unmarried partners (also known as common-law partners), close friends, relations by indirect marriage and carers.
Married Partners / Civil Partnerships
If, in the eyes of the law, you’re legally married or in a civil partnership your spouse will be entitled to inherit your estate, regardless of circumstance. You might hate each other’s guts, have flown off to live your best life in the Bahamas with no intention of ever laying eyes on them again, but if you haven’t officially divorced and you die intestate they’ll inherit your estate.
If, in the eyes of the law, you aren’t legally married or in a civil partnership your partner won’t be entitled to anything. You might be madly in love with them, you might do anything for them, but the rules of intestacy won’t (do that). If you want to leave them something, you need a Will. Heaven can’t wait.
Married with children
If you’re childless, your spouse gets your entire estate, along with all your personal property and belongings. If you do have children, things get messier. Oh, and it makes the rules of intestacy more complicated too.
If your estate is worth less than £270,000 your spouse gets everything. If it’s worth more than £270,000, your spouse gets:
- all your personal property and belongings
- the first £270,000 of your estate
- half of the remaining value of the estate
Children get the other half of the remaining value – it’s divided equally between them. For example, say your estate is worth £750,000 and you’re married with two kids. If you died intestate, your spouse would inherit all your personal property and belongings, £270,000, and then half of the remaining £480,000 left over – £510,000 in total. The other half of the £480,000 (£240,000) would be split between your two kids, so they’d each inherit £120,000. Didn’t think you’d be getting a free maths lesson with your Will advice, did you?
If you don’t have a spouse or surviving partner, but you do have kids, the kids get everything – again, equally divided between them. That’s easy enough. They might not inherit right away, though. You wouldn’t want them spending it all on sweets. It’ll be held by trustees until either
- they turn 18
- they get married (if this happens before they turn 18)
If you don’t have surviving children but you do have grandchildren (or great-grandchildren if children and grandchildren are deceased), they’ll inherit in their place.
Other family members
Your (legal) partner, children and grand-children are top of your priority list, which is fair enough. If you don’t have any of those, the rules of intestacy turn to your other relatives in this order:
- Legal Partner
- Brothers / Sisters
- Nieces / Nephews
- Aunts / Uncles
- Half-aunts / Half-uncles
They just go down that list until they find a living relative. If there’s not a single relative, your estate goes to The Crown. Which I’m told is a very good show on Netflix.
Oh, apparently I’ve misunderstood that. Different Crown. My bad. It actually goes to the state – this is known as ‘bona vacantia’. It means ‘unclaimed goods’, but they use the Latin term because Latin sounds posher. Obviously.
If you’re Cornish, it goes to Prince Charles specifically, you’ll be pleased to know. If there’s one thing in the world Prince Charles could do with more of, it’s everyone else’s money. In a single year’s period from 2019-20, he only inherited £1m from people dying intestate. If you too would like to leave your lifelong savings to a needy organisation like the Royal family, just don’t get a Will!
Then the Crown’s got your property. I’ve mentioned numerous times that those not legally connected to you aren’t entitled to anything according to the rules of intestacy. And they aren’t. I wasn’t lying! They can, however, apply for financial provision if they believe they’ve got a claim. There’s no guarantee they’ll get it, but they can try. If successful, this might be:
- regular payments from the estate
- a lump sum payment
- property from the estate to be transferred to them
- benefits of an asset for the rest of their life
The thing is, you don’t want to put them in that situation. It’s not fair. Your loved ones shouldn’t have to apply to the courts and fight for your estate. They won’t have to, if you have a Will.
If you do have remaining family members and you die intestate, they can actually choose to overturn the rules of intestacy between themselves with a Deed of Variation. They can rearrange the estate and split it however they want – as long as it’s done within 2 years of the death and all parties are in complete agreement. Those who aren’t entitled to inherit by the rules of intestacy can be included in a Deed of Variation, and can inherit. I really like this point. I like the idea of a proper harmonious family coming to a nice respectful agreement. All sunshine and rainbows. Can’t see it happening too often in reality, like, but it’s a comforting thought nonetheless.
There’s so many ifs and buts with the rules of intestacy. I can’t impress on you enough how much easier it is to just sort your Will. I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been trying in this article. Haven’t even tried to hide it. All the subtlety of a double-barrelled shotgun. But it honestly makes everything so much easier when you die. It’s taken me about 750 words to explain what the rules of intestacy mean for your property. Do you know how many words it’d take me to explain what happens to your property if you’ve got a Will? Just 3 – whatever you want.
Thinking about death
Unless you’re a massive goth, it might be quite hard to think about your own death. It’s a morbid topic, and it’s one that puts a lot of people off making a Will. But it’s something you need to consider if you want to make sure your family’s looked after when you die. Which I’m sure you do.
You know what made me feel comfortable thinking about my own death? I once saw a news article about an old woman who lived in Russia, I think it was. Proper little wrinkled old woman, like 3 foot tall. She was literally about 130 years old (I’ve just looked it up, she was 128). Reporters went to interview her about her miraculous life and you know what she said? She said she’d hated every single minute of it. She said there’d never been a moment in her life that wasn’t miserable. She thought every second she lived was a punishment from God, and she said she wished she’d died years ago, when she was young. Oof.
Sadly, or maybe not, she’s passed away now. I’m sure she’s not too bothered. But the words of that ridiculously miserable old woman, strangely enough, gave me comfort. How lucky am I? She lived 128 years and hated every moment. If I died tomorrow, could I say I’d enjoyed my life? Absolutely I could. I didn’t actively detest every single second of my entire being, for a start, and I suppose that helps. But it made me, in a weird way, come to terms with the idea of my own death.
For me, and I’m assuming for most people reading this, life hasn’t been bad at all. It could have been a lot worse, anyway. Knowing that there’s someone out there who’s lived to 128 years old and not had a single happy moment in her life makes me feel so privileged to have enjoyed the life I have. And it made me a lot more comfortable with the idea of dying – I’ve had a good life. It’s bizarre, but it genuinely made me a lot more relaxed. Everyone dies someday – at least I can say I’ve had a happy life.
And that’s what made me comfortable thinking about death. Maybe you already are and I’m trying to sell ice to the eskimos. Either way, you still need a Will, and there’s no point putting it off. Why not visit our Vital Documents site and get your Will sorted now? We offer an easy, hassle-free service and you can have your Will sorted for you in no time at all. We help you decide what Will works best for you, and can tailor Wills to meet your specific needs and circumstances. You get peace of mind knowing that your loved ones are protected when you die, we get the satisfaction of another happy customer under our belt. Win-win.