It’s not difficult to make a will, nor does it have to be an expensive exercise, yet nearly half the people who die in Australia each year don’t have a valid will.
Dying without a valid will means your estate will be distributed according to the intestacy laws in your state or territory, not as you may have wished (we explain here why it’s dangerous to assume your assets will go to your nearest and dearest).
If you’d like more control over the distribution of your estate but don’t have a will or haven’t updated your will in several years, one of the simplest ways of getting your estate planning sorted or updated is to buy a will kit from your local post office or newsagency.
You can also buy a will kit online and download the paperwork you’ll need for less than $30. Choice has reviewed the most popular will kits, setting out the pros and cons of each, to help you choose the one most suitable for your situation.
If you follow the guidelines carefully, and make sure the will is properly signed and witnessed, there’s no reason why you can’t put together a valid will at the kitchen table. But while going down the DIY route is cheap and convenient, it’s not without risks that you should consider.
According to Neil Herlihy, head of customer segments and an expert in Baby Boomer money matters at Westpac, writing your own will is better than one of the alternatives – doing nothing at all. But Herlihy says a homemade will may not stand the test of time because it depends on the attitude you take toward making it.
“Your financial investment is low, so your engagement is probably low as well,” he says. “You’re trying to do a task, which means pay $20, write it all down, sign it, witness it, put it in the top drawer, we’re done here.
“I would challenge that’s not actually a will,” Herlihy adds. “It’s just a one-off piece of paper saying that’s what’s happening in my life at that point in time. A will is actually an ongoing description of what I want to have happen if something happens to me today. And that changes.”
In short, any time you have a change to your personal situation – new relationships, the birth of children or grandchildren, a change of address, the purchase of large assets or other substantial expenditure, changes to investments or income are just some – your will needs to be updated to reflect those changes or risk being deemed invalid at a later date.
A $20 will is always going to have a lower upfront cost than a professionally-drafted document. But if your DIY document falls short when it’s needed most – for example, it’s found to be invalid or challenged by somebody who feels they’ve missed out – it could end up costing far more in legal costs.
Brian Herd, a partner at CRH Law and expert in elder law, including estate planning, says that inheritance laws are complex and specific and a seemingly simple oversight, such as not properly completing the DIY document, can cause legal problems down the track.
“When you create a big legal problem, you’re creating costs, which then have to come out of the estate, which then comes out of the share of the beneficiaries,” he cautions. “It’s amazing how many people get it wrong, even in the do-it-yourself kit, so, to that extent, I wouldn’t recommend it because it’s not a good cost-benefit decision.
“It might cost you nothing to do it upfront but it may cost your beneficiaries a lot down the road if you haven’t done it properly and there are legal issues.”
In addition, Herlihy warns that if your will is found to be invalid – meaning that you’ve effectively died intestate – there may delays in finalising your estate.
“As an example, if your estate is worth $3 million and you think you’re leaving everything to the family, it might take them a couple of years for them to get their hands on the money,” he says.
Herlihy says that should be reason enough to get professional help with drafting a will; after all, this is probably going to be the single biggest financial transaction that ever has your name against it, he notes.
So, do DIY wills have a place? Herlihy says yes, particularly where there’s little or no estate to consider. “Or it’s really valuable for a young person to make a DIY will, to get them really thinking about this early in life, and then regularly addressing it,” he adds.
To get started on making a will, Westpac’s Davidson Institute offers a free webinar about estate planning, including will-making, hosted by Kerstin Gom, a senior solicitor at KJB Law, who specialises in estate planning.
Westpac also has a free, downloadable estate planning booklet designed to record key details about yourself, your family, your assets and how you intend it to be distributed, to help get you thinking about what might go in your will.
Things to know: The information in this publication is general information and factual only. It does not constitute any recommendation or advice. It is an overview only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. You should consider obtaining your own independent professional advice.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.