Everything you should know about DIY wills

A Will is one of the most significant legal documents you’ll sign in your lifetime, so it’s important to get it right – but why?

It’s an opportunity to meet two goals: to have your wishes heard, and to make things easier for your family after you pass. If a Will isn’t written properly, it’s possible that neither of those goals will be met.

You should have a Will when you’re over the age of 18. ‘Do it yourself’ Will kits are highly publicised and may seem like an easy option, especially if your assets are minimal and uncomplicated. The problem is, there are some big risks in taking this option.

What are the risks of DIY Wills?

The biggest problem with DIY Wills is that it’s very easy to get them wrong. Even the simplest mistakes can cause the Will to be contested or held to be invalid.

Some of the most common mistakes we see are:

  • Attempting to give away assets you dont own. A Will can only dispose of assets that you own at the date of your death, but we often find that some people with a DIY Will try to give away assets that they don’t own. For example, we once saw a Will that contained a clause that directed the life insurance be used to pay off their house so that the Will-maker’s son could receive the house free of debt. Unfortunately, the life insurance policy nominated the Will-maker’s new partner as the beneficiary. When the policy was paid to the partner, they then refused to use it to pay off the mortgage. Had the Will-maker sought legal advice this problem would have been identified and the appropriate steps taken to ensure that the intention was fulfilled.
  • Failing to comply with basic legal formalities. A Will is a legal document. There are legal requirements that must be followed when making a Will to ensure that the Will is valid. Simple things such as having only one witness to your signature or having the witnesses using different coloured pens can raise questions about whether your signature was actually witnessed. Basic errors such as these can either invalidate your Will or create costly disputes within the family.
  • Being too specific in your Will. Some people who attempt to make a DIY Will try and give away every single thing they own. This creates two potential problems. First, the Will-maker often forgets to include a “catch-all” clause at the end of the Will. This means that there will be some assets that are not disposed of. These “forgotten assets” are then distributed in accordance with a formula set out in legislation. Second, some assets listed in the Will are likely to change. For example, if the Will leaves a house to a beneficiary and that house has been sold prior to the Will being executed, that beneficiary misses out on the gift. Proper advice at the time of preparing a Will can avoid these problems.
  • Imposing requirements on a beneficiary. Some DIY Wills impose requirements on the beneficiaries that are sometimes unrealistic or impractical. This often happens where gifts made to a charity direct that the funds be used for a purpose that might no-longer exist. This outcome can be avoided if the Will is drafted correctly. Further, sometimes the identity of the organisation that is to receive the gift is unclear. This, too, can be avoided with proper advice.
  • Forgetting to appoint an executor to the Will. Forgetting to appoint an executor won't invalidate your Will, but it can complicate or slow down the process of sorting out your estate. The failure to appoint an executor can also lead to a dispute as family members jostle to be appointed as Administrator of the estate.
  • Overlooking the fact that circumstances change. DIY Wills often overlook the need to cater for change. A Will needs to be drafted to deal with any potential change in circumstance. While not every scenario can be covered, with proper advice the most obvious scenarios, such as a change in address, can be dealt with.    
  • Illegible handwriting. This is a simple but common mistake we often see with DIY Wills. If no one can read your Will, then you can't be certain your wishes will be granted.

What's the best way to make a DIY Will?

The first thing I say to people who want to write their own will is: don’t do it. But if you do have your mind set on the idea, here are some tips:

  • Choose the Will kit carefully. It's worth doing some research and not just choosing the first kit you find. Some kits are more thorough than others, so look for one with detailed instructions.
  • Make sure you understand what assets you own and how you own them. This includes your home, smaller items and additional assets such as superannuation and life insurance.
  • Keep it simple. Overly complex or specific clauses can be hard to enforce.
  • Follow the instructions carefully. Your DIY Will kit will come with instructions, so be sure to follow them carefully, both in terms of the content of the Will and signing the Will.
  • Get a lawyer to check your Will. A legal document requires legal advice. By having a lawyer look over your Will, you can quickly identify any errors that could cause problems later on.

DIY Wills are often seen as a cheaper option to seeking legal advice, but that’s not necessarily true. Your DIY Will might cause more issues down the track, potentially costing your loved ones money or causing disputes. Be smart about your Will, whether you choose to make a DIY Will or seek advice from a lawyer.

TOPIC: Will disputes
RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Will disputes

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Andrew Simpson

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
When it comes to challenging or defending a Will, Andrew Simpson is the lawyer you want fighting for you. He is a Principal and the head of Maurice Blackburn’s national Wills and Estates Law practice, based in Melbourne. Andrew has 20 years’ experience as a lawyer and for the past 18 of these years he has practiced in Wills disputes and estate planning, so he understands the many sides to estate law. Andrew is so passionate about this area of law that in 2012 he wrote the plain English guide to estate planning, You Can’t Take it With You. Andrew works exclusively in Will disputes at Maurice Blackburn, helping clients fight for their rightful entitlements every day. He is a very approachable, compassionate lawyer who has an ability to build an easy rapport with his clients. “My early life as a lawyer was spent assisting clients with estate planning issues,” says Andrew. “This advice often involved advising clients on the extent to which their Will was at risk of a challenge. I developed a deep understanding of the issues that gave rise to a right to challenge a Will. I then began assisting people who were unfairly treated by being cut out of the Will or getting a smaller benefit than they believed was owed to them. “The most rewarding part of working in Will disputes is being able to help people obtain access to estate funds in circumstances where they are in financial need. This is life changing for most clients.” Andrew holds Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law, and a Masters in Law. He was awarded the Churchill Fellowship in 2004, and visited Canada, the United States and the UK to examine international approaches to estate planning and elder law. “I am driven because I know that I can use the law to significantly improve a client’s quality of life,” says Andrew. Accreditations & Memberships Law Institute of Victoria member Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners member ...

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