Legal firms across the country have reported dramatic increases in enquiries about wills as the coronavirus outbreak prompts Britons to urgently review the state of their bequests.

The National Will Register has also seen a marked increase in searches for wills performed by those who have lost someone as a result of Covid-19, often in a bid to quickly determine funeral wishes and help speed up access to any financial legacies.

But vast swathes of the UK population either don’t have a will at all or haven’t updated it for so long that their personal circumstances have changed dramatically, often because they mistakenly assume their wishes will be carried out by default after they die.

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Barely 40 per cent of UK adults have a will in place. Even among retirement-age adults, a third haven’t formally set out their legacies, warns insurance firm Royal London.

And those who have done the paperwork have often let then become woefully out of date. More than two-thirds of people have bought a new home since writing their will, for example, but haven’t updated it to acknowledge such a big change.

Misinformed

Experts believe a series of misguided assumptions have meant millions of UK adults don’t feel they need to take the time to set out their wishes, including care for dependent children.

Two in five of us wrongly believe that the legal responsibility for children will automatically go to the immediate family if their parents were to die without a will, known as intestate. In fact, in such circumstances, the legal responsibility for any dependent children under 18 would fall to the courts, until a decision is made on who will become guardians.

A third of adults also don’t realise that a change in relationships could have massive knock-on effects if a will isn’t updated. A will is technically valid even if you separate from a spouse, who could still be entitled to your assets until you formally divorce.

And if you are cohabiting with a partner without being married, they would not be entitled to assets only owned by you if you were to die without a will. If there are jointly owned assets, the other owner would normally inherit them. Children would have a claim on the assets but if there are no children, the assets would be passed on to parents and siblings. A cohabitee has no rights.

Royal London research also found that almost 90 per cent of adults aren’t aware that a will written in England may not be valid in Scotland, or vice versa.

In fact, in Scotland, you cannot legally remove your spouse or children as beneficiaries even if you have a will which doesn’t include them. Even if you are estranged from your family, they can still claim on your assets, a fact that only 8 per cent of Britons were aware of, including just a fifth of Scottish residents.

Where to start

If your affairs are straightforward, writing your own will could be a quick, free solution. It should set out who you want to benefit from your will, who should look after any children under the age of 18, who is designated to sort out your estate and carry out your wishes after your death, known as your executor, and what happens if the people you intend to benefit from your legacy die before you do.

It needs to be signed and dated by you and witnessed by two people who aren’t related to you or beneficiaries, are over the age of 18, of sound mind and who can watch you sign the document. In this time of social distancing, this can be done through a window.

GPs, work colleagues, neighbours or friends are often go-to choices.

For your will to be legally valid, you must be 18 or over, make it voluntarily and in writing. You must be of sound mind and must sign it in your witnesses’ presence, who then sign it in yours.

If you have more complex financial legacies, perhaps you have a large family who may all make a claim, own assets jointly with someone who isn’t a spouse or civil partner, or own property or assets overseas, for example, professional advice would help though could cost anywhere between £150 and £250.

Numerous charities, including most of the large household names operate a free will-writing service with the hope that you’ll arrange to leave the organisation a legacy in the paperwork or make a donation for the service.

The Money Advice Service provides further independent, free information about wills and the legal processes around leaving, arranging and claiming a legacy.

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