What you can put in a will

If you’re thinking of writing your will, what should you put in it?

Getting started

Over time, you’ll come to own all sorts of things like a property, savings or a pension. You  may also have treasured possessions that you would like to pass on. Whether you’re updating an existing will or starting to think about writing one for the first time, here’s what could go in your will.

What you can do with a will

Appoint executors

Executors are the people you choose to be responsible for making sure the wishes in your will are carried out. Many people choose trusted friends or family members as their executors. If you do this, make sure you ask them first. You can appoint a solicitor or an accountant, especially if you don’t have anyone you can ask, but their costs vary quite widely. You don’t have to appoint more than one executor, but it is a good idea to do so.

Sorting out the will of someone who’s died does involve some time, effort and paperwork for the executors.  Some people like to do the work themselves. But they can choose a solicitor to help them to do some or all of the work (the cost of this would come out of the money you leave behind).  

Appoint guardians

If you have children under the age of 18 (16 in Scotland), you can use your will to appoint guardians for them. These are people who agree to look after your children if you die and there is noone left with parental responsibility for them. If you don’t appoint guardians, the courts will decide who should take care of your children and this may not match your wishes. 

Set out your funeral wishes

You can say if you wish to be buried or cremated for example. However, these wishes are not legally binding and your friends or family may have started to arrange your funeral before they find your will. A better option is to set out funeral wishes in a note or letter of wishes (see below) and to let your family know you’ve done this. The advantage of this is that if you change your mind about the kind of funeral you’d like, you don’t have to change your will. If you have a funeral plan, you should also make sure those who will be sorting out your financial affairs know about it.  Our When I’m Gone booklet is a great way of recording information like this in one place.

Pass on property you own

If you own your home – or a buy to let property – in your own right you can leave it in your will to whoever you like.

If you own your home with someone else (such as your husband, wife or partner) what happens to it after you die depends on how it is owned:

  • If you own your home jointly as what’s called ‘joint tenants’, your share of the property passes automatically to the other person. This is the case whether or not you have a will. Most married couples own property in this way. In Scotland, joint tenancy is called ‘joint ownership with a survivorship destination’. Ignore the fact that the language talks about tenants and tenancy – it’s nothing to do with renting.
  • If you own your home with someone else as ‘tenants in common’, that means you both own distinct shares and you can say in your will who you would like your share to go to. If you don’t have a will, your share of the property will be passed on under the laws of intestacy. This could mean that your children or parents inherit, for example. In Scotland, 'tenants in common' is called ‘joint owners’.

Leave gifts to people

Many people like to pass on items they own of sentimental value.  If you have a will, you can leave specific items you own to people you’d like to inherit them.  For example, ‘I give my engagement ring to my granddaughter’.  And you can leave money to people as well – for example, ‘I give £1,000 to each of my children’.

Once you’ve decided who you’d like to leave specific gifts to, you can then set out who you would like to leave everything else to (known as the ‘residuary estate’).

You can also say who should inherit if any of the people you leave money or gifts to die before you.

Provide for stepchildren and unmarried partners

Under the rules of intestacy (which set out who will get what if you die without a will), unmarried partners and stepchildren won’t automatically inherit from you.  Instead, they would have to go to court to make a claim, which can be both emotionally and financially costly. So, if you would like to pass anything on to them, it’s important you put this in your will. 

Say what should happen to your pets

You can leave your pet to someone under your will and you can include instructions on how they should be cared for in a letter of wishes (see below). You may also want to leave the person you choose some money to help cover the costs of caring for your pet (you can’t leave money directly to a pet).

Alternatively there are animal charities that will care for and try to re-home your pet. For example, you can register for the RSPCA’s Home for Life scheme or, in Scotland, for the SSPCA’s Forever Care scheme.

Leave instructions about your online accounts

These days, when so much of what we do is online, it’s important to think about what should happen to your online accounts, from emails and photographs to online bank and gaming accounts. Unless you specifically mention these and leave a list of how to access them, they could be lost forever. However, it’s best to leave this in a separate note alongside your will rather than in your will (your will can become a public document after you die which means anyone can access it).

Leave money to charity

You can leave a cash sum, particular item or a share of everything you own to a charity (there can be inheritance tax benefits to doing so). If you do this, you may be able to benefit from one of the ‘free wills’ schemes where you can get a simple will written in exchange for leaving something to charity.

Give someone the benefit of something for their lifetime

This is called giving someone a life interest (liferent in Scotland) and it can be quite useful. For example, if you own your home in your sole name, you could give your partner the right to continue to live in your home until they die. Once they die, you can state in your will that you’d like your home to pass onto your children. That way your partner will continue to have a home for as long as they live.

Pass on your business and any foreign assets

If you have a business or foreign assets, you should get legal advice when writing your will.

Minimise the inheritance tax bill

If your estate (that’s everything you own less anything you owe) is big enough to worry about inheritance tax, a solicitor can advise you on how to write your will to minimise the amount of tax paid. Generally there isn’t any inheritance tax to pay if your estate is worth less than £325,000. However, if you give your home away to your children (including adopted, foster or step children) or grandchildren, your estate can be worth up to £500,000 before inheritance tax kicks in. And if your spouse or civil partner dies before you, you could potentially pass on up to £1million free of tax. For more detail see Gov.uk

Set up trusts

You can use a will to set up trusts for particular situations.  For example, you may want to do this if you’re leaving something to a child or to a vulnerable person such as someone with mental health issues or disabilities. A trust means you can ensure they are provided for but that someone else has responsibility for making decisions about the money or property. You should seek legal advice if you would like to do this.

Appoint executors

Executors are the people you choose to be responsible for making sure the wishes in your will are carried out. Many people choose trusted friends or family members as their executors. If you do this, make sure you ask them first. You can appoint a solicitor or an accountant, especially if you don’t have anyone you can ask, but their costs vary quite widely. You don’t have to appoint more than one executor, but it is a good idea to do so.

Sorting out the will of someone who’s died does involve some time, effort and paperwork for the executors.  Some people like to do the work themselves. But they can choose a solicitor to help them to do some or all of the work (the cost of this would come out of the money you leave behind).  

Appoint guardians

If you have children under the age of 18 (16 in Scotland), you can use your will to appoint guardians for them. These are people who agree to look after your children if you die and there is noone left with parental responsibility for them. If you don’t appoint guardians, the courts will decide who should take care of your children and this may not match your wishes. 

Set out your funeral wishes

You can say if you wish to be buried or cremated for example. However, these wishes are not legally binding and your friends or family may have started to arrange your funeral before they find your will. A better option is to set out funeral wishes in a note or letter of wishes (see below) and to let your family know you’ve done this. The advantage of this is that if you change your mind about the kind of funeral you’d like, you don’t have to change your will. If you have a funeral plan, you should also make sure those who will be sorting out your financial affairs know about it.  Our When I’m Gone booklet is a great way of recording information like this in one place.

Pass on property you own

If you own your home – or a buy to let property – in your own right you can leave it in your will to whoever you like.

If you own your home with someone else (such as your husband, wife or partner) what happens to it after you die depends on how it is owned:

  • If you own your home jointly as what’s called ‘joint tenants’, your share of the property passes automatically to the other person. This is the case whether or not you have a will. Most married couples own property in this way. In Scotland, joint tenancy is called ‘joint ownership with a survivorship destination’. Ignore the fact that the language talks about tenants and tenancy – it’s nothing to do with renting.
  • If you own your home with someone else as ‘tenants in common’, that means you both own distinct shares and you can say in your will who you would like your share to go to. If you don’t have a will, your share of the property will be passed on under the laws of intestacy. This could mean that your children or parents inherit, for example. In Scotland, 'tenants in common' is called ‘joint owners’.

Leave gifts to people

Many people like to pass on items they own of sentimental value.  If you have a will, you can leave specific items you own to people you’d like to inherit them.  For example, ‘I give my engagement ring to my granddaughter’.  And you can leave money to people as well – for example, ‘I give £1,000 to each of my children’.

Once you’ve decided who you’d like to leave specific gifts to, you can then set out who you would like to leave everything else to (known as the ‘residuary estate’).

You can also say who should inherit if any of the people you leave money or gifts to die before you.

Provide for stepchildren and unmarried partners

Under the rules of intestacy (which set out who will get what if you die without a will), unmarried partners and stepchildren won’t automatically inherit from you.  Instead, they would have to go to court to make a claim, which can be both emotionally and financially costly. So, if you would like to pass anything on to them, it’s important you put this in your will. 

Say what should happen to your pets

You can leave your pet to someone under your will and you can include instructions on how they should be cared for in a letter of wishes (see below). You may also want to leave the person you choose some money to help cover the costs of caring for your pet (you can’t leave money directly to a pet).

Alternatively there are animal charities that will care for and try to re-home your pet. For example, you can register for the RSPCA’s Home for Life scheme or, in Scotland, for the SSPCA’s Forever Care scheme.

Leave instructions about your online accounts

These days, when so much of what we do is online, it’s important to think about what should happen to your online accounts, from emails and photographs to online bank and gaming accounts. Unless you specifically mention these and leave a list of how to access them, they could be lost forever. However, it’s best to leave this in a separate note alongside your will rather than in your will (your will can become a public document after you die which means anyone can access it).

Leave money to charity

You can leave a cash sum, particular item or a share of everything you own to a charity (there can be inheritance tax benefits to doing so). If you do this, you may be able to benefit from one of the ‘free wills’ schemes where you can get a simple will written in exchange for leaving something to charity.

Give someone the benefit of something for their lifetime

This is called giving someone a life interest (liferent in Scotland) and it can be quite useful. For example, if you own your home in your sole name, you could give your partner the right to continue to live in your home until they die. Once they die, you can state in your will that you’d like your home to pass onto your children. That way your partner will continue to have a home for as long as they live.

Pass on your business and any foreign assets

If you have a business or foreign assets, you should get legal advice when writing your will.

Minimise the inheritance tax bill

If your estate (that’s everything you own less anything you owe) is big enough to worry about inheritance tax, a solicitor can advise you on how to write your will to minimise the amount of tax paid. Generally there isn’t any inheritance tax to pay if your estate is worth less than £325,000. However, if you give your home away to your children (including adopted, foster or step children) or grandchildren, your estate can be worth up to £500,000 before inheritance tax kicks in. And if your spouse or civil partner dies before you, you could potentially pass on up to £1million free of tax. For more detail see Gov.uk

Set up trusts

You can use a will to set up trusts for particular situations.  For example, you may want to do this if you’re leaving something to a child or to a vulnerable person such as someone with mental health issues or disabilities. A trust means you can ensure they are provided for but that someone else has responsibility for making decisions about the money or property. You should seek legal advice if you would like to do this.

Your pension and your will

You cannot leave someone your pension in your will. Instead you need to make sure you’ve taken the right steps to ensure your pension(s) go to the people you want them to.  To do this, make sure you have filled out a ‘nomination of beneficiaries form’  for all the pensions you have. It’s also important to update these if your circumstances change (for example, if you separate or divorce).

Our guide on How to make sure the right person gets your pension when you die explains this in more detail.

Adding a letter of wishes

As well as writing your will, you may find it useful to write a letter of wishes. This is a note that sits alongside your will and provides guidance to your executors. One of the benefits of writing one is that you can update and change it without affecting your will. It also doesn’t have to be formally written by a legal expert or witnessed and it’s not legally binding. 

The kind of things people use letter of wishes for  include giving advice to guardians on how you would like your children to be raised, setting out what kind of funeral you’d like and explaining why you’ve not included certain people in your will (if that’s likely to be controversial).

Next steps

  • Use an online will planner (for example, you can download one from WillAid to help you start gathering your thoughts on what you’ve got and who you want to leave it to.
  • Decide who you’ll use to write your will. Our article on How to make a will explains the different options.