Why a will is important and how to leave a legacy to charity

October is Free Wills Month and the perfect time to organise your affairs for after your death, giving you the peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out. But as well as taking care of your family, a will is a great way to support a charity.

If you’re thinking of having your will drafted or updated, we’ve spoken with Richard Mahony of RM Professional Wills to ask his advice on the importance of a will and how to leave a legacy to a cause close to your heart.

Why is it important to make a will?
A will is important because it provides clarity on what your intentions are when you’re no longer around. It ensures that any money or valuables you leave behind go where you want them to go. If a person dies intestate (without a will), depending on their family, their estate will be passed down the family line to a spouse or civil partner and any children, or, if they’re unmarried and have no children, it could go to their parents, then siblings and so on. The issue here is that these might not necessarily be the people you’d like your estate to be passed to. I always say you inherit your relatives and find your friends. Not everybody is close to their immediate family; special friends could be completely missed out without a will.I worked on a case recently where it was agreed that the deceased’s neighbour, who was a good friend, would organise the funeral. Unfortunately, there was no will detailing that the neighbour’s costs should be reimbursed and so they were sadly left out of pocket.

Does everyone need a will? What if you’re unmarried or have no immediate family?
Yes, everybody should make a will as even if there are no relatives you’d like to leave your estate to, there might be friends or a charity you’d like to remember. If you die without a will, your estate could go to your closest living relative and that could be someone you’ve had no contact with for years. If you’re unmarried, you might have a partner that you want to leave items to but if you die intestate, they won’t automatically be entitled to anything and could be left out.

A will can also provide much-needed clarity in the case of a second marriage where children are involved.  Most married couples have a joint will so anything left goes to the partner. When organising your will, you can ensure any jointly-owned property is owned as ‘tenants in common.’ This means that although the property is split 50/50,  if one spouse dies, although the surviving partner has the right to a lifetime tenancy, the share of the property can be passed to the deceased’s children, or as detailed in the will.

You can also build in conditions that stipulate if the stepparent remarries, they would have to sell the property so the children can receive their share. If these conditions are not included in a will, a situation known as ‘sideways disinheritance’ can occur; this is when the surviving stepparent inherits their spouse’s estate and then remarries and changes the terms of their will to benefit a new partner. The deceased’s children could miss out completely and the inheritance could move ‘sideways’ into a new family.

You should also review your will periodically so that it’s still fit for purpose. For example, when your children are young, you can include details regarding guardianship but this will not apply once they reach adulthood and you might want to make them executors instead. Also, your interests in any organisations listed as beneficiaries might change with time.

If you leave money to a charity, how long does it take for them to receive it?
Upon death, all the money in an estate is tied up. This is where probate comes into play. Probate simply means the legal right for an executor (the person dealing with the deceased’s estate) to deal with someone’s property, money and possessions. It is not always necessary to apply for probate – different banks and financial institutions have their own procedures – but it can take up to six months or even a year for it to be granted. Normally any debts are paid off first, including funeral fees; undertakers usually require payment within 28 days. So any charity will receive their money at the same time as every other beneficiary.

Is it better to leave a charity a percentage of your estate or a set amount of money?
Again, I come back to clarity; my advice when helping a client draft a will is always to detail exact figures. That way, everybody involved knows exactly what they are getting. It also makes life easier for the executor. Their job is to gather together all the deceased’s funds, sell any property, pay off any debts or funeral expenses and distribute what is left to beneficiaries, which can be a complicated job. It is far more simple to deal with named amounts than working out various percentages.Another important point to mention is that there are tax benefits to leaving a legacy to a charity; it can reduce the amount of inheritance tax payable on your estate by 10%.

Can you leave valuable possessions to a charity, or just money?
You can leave possessions to a charity but then they would have to deal with having the items valued and sold in order to actually receive their financial value. This can be time-consuming and create a lot of work for the charity so leaving cash is always a better option.

HOLG was fortunate to receive two legacies recently: one, which specified it should be used to fund transport for families to our events and one that states it should not be used for salaries or admin costs. Ideally, we prefer legacies which don’t have conditions attached so that funds can be used for core costs which are more difficult to get funded through grants. What would your advice be about attaching conditions to legacies?
Often people want to ensure the money they leave goes directly towards the charity’s work rather than for example, the salaries of the people that work there. But it’s important to remember that it’s the professionals behind the charities that do the work to keep it running. Although you can indicate what you’d like your legacy to be used for, it can be more helpful to let the charity use the money in a way that’s most beneficial to its work at that time.

One last important piece of advice: always make sure that any charity you leave money to is registered and that you include their registration number in your will (you can usually find this at the bottom of their websites). Some charities have very similar names; including the registration number makes it crystal clear which organisation your legacy is intended for.

Richard is a Member of the Society of Will Writers and helps with drafting wills, and assisting executors dealing with estates. For every will drafted throughout October, Richard will make a donation to Holding On Letting Go.

Please get in touch at: richardmahony@hotmail.co.uk or 07764 850350