Recent research commissioned by Solicitors for the Elderly (Censuswide Dec 2022) has shown that less than 7 in 10 parents with minor children have an up to date Will in place. The research results were publicised in the lead up to ‘Update your Will Week 2023,’ hosted by Solicitors for the Elderly and running from 23rd to 29th January. The aim of this week is to highlight the need for people to review their Wills and ensure they are still fit for purpose. Circumstances and family change over time so it is vital that you review your Will regularly to keep everything up to date and to avoid potentially costly litigation if your Will is no longer relevant. At Else Solicitors we recommend that you review your Will every 3 to 5 years and contact us if any changes are required.
Focussing though on the part of the research looking at parents with Wills, this is a worrying statistic because it means they do not have a legal guardian appointed to look after their children in the event that something happens to them. There is a general inclination for people to think that Wills are not needed at a relatively young age, and possibly parents do not realise that Godparents will not automatically become legal guardians for children in the event of their parents’ deaths. The research also pointed to results showing that only two in ten parents being aware that if there is no guardian appointed, it can be left to social services and the Courts to make the decision. This process is likely to be costly and time consuming during what will already be an incredibly distressing time, and the final decision may not be what the parents would have chosen themselves, or could lead to disputes in the family.
It is therefore vital for parents of children under 18 to make sure that they have a Will in place to appoint guardians for their children. That appointment will only happen if both parents die before the children reach 18, but it is so important to have your wishes set out clearly in writing. Through an appointment in a Will, the guardian will take on parental responsibility for the children, which allows them to make decisions about where the children live, their education and any medical matters as well as day to day care.
The situation can be less straightforward for divorced or separated parents, and it is even more important that they seek advice about how to express their wishes in the event of their deaths.
You can also supplement your Will by having a Letter of Wishes setting out any particular information or guidance you may have for the guardians. This would not be a legally binding document, but would allow you to give more personal information and insights that would usually be included within the Will itself. This can be particularly important for single parents who may not wish their child to live with the other surviving parent. Also, don’t forget that a Will becomes a public document after Grant of Probate is applied for and available to anyone who applies for a copy. A Letter of Wishes giving information to guardians will always remain confidential to them and not become publicly available.
Another reason why Wills are important for parents of young children is the appointment of Trustees – these are the people who will look after your estate until the children are ready to inherit. If you do not have a Will in place, whoever takes on parental responsibility for the children will automatically have authority to also look after the funds. This again is particularly important for single parents to consider – although they may be happy for the other parent to have day to day parental responsibility for the children, they may not want them also to be in charge of the money. With a Will you can choose Trustees without it automatically reverting to the other parent.
Finally, you can also set out in the Will when and how you want your children to inherit. Without a Will the children will inherit at 18 regardless of their circumstances at that time. By having a Will in place you have different people managing the money to those caring for the children (should you wish), and you can raise the age they inherit, or leave the money more flexibly allowing the Trustees to decide when it is the right time to distribute your estate.
People often believe there is no need for a Will when their children are young, possibly because they think they do not have much to leave, or that ‘it will all go to the children anyway.’ As this brief article demonstrates however, the benefit of having a Will in these circumstances is not so much to determine who receives the estate, but who looks after it and who looks after the children until it is ready to be paid out. You have freedom of choice to make sure it is the people you trust who are appointed to fulfil these incredibly important roles if a situation arises where you are not here to do it yourself by making sure you have a Will in place.