In England and Wales you have almost complete freedom to leave your estate to whoever you wish. After all, it’s your property!
If you want to choose who to benefit from your estate – make a will and spell it out. Otherwise the law takes over and decides how your property is to be distributed.
The most important consideration is making it clear who you intended to benefit from your will. Generally, unless you would like to give a gift to a very large group of people it is a good idea to specifically name the people you would like to benefit from your will. It is always important to be as precise as possible. This will not only make the job of administering your estate easier for your executors, but it will also ensure that none of your gifts will be ruled invalid for uncertainty. Our Failure of gifts page fully explains the consequences of gifts being ruled invalid, and the following pages on Named beneficiaries will help to make clear how to make sure your gifts are sufficiently clear.
There are also some particular considerations for different categories of beneficiaries. This section explains the issues, advantages and any particular rules which apply if you are leaving your estate to your Spouse or civil partner, or leaving gifts to charity. Small but important additional questions are raised by leaving gifts or part of your estate to Child beneficiaries. And more potentially complicated issues arise if any of your beneficiaries is someone with an Overseas connection.
One way that people decide who should benefit in their wills is to consider who are their dependants. That can be a useful starting point, so long as you understand what that means. Our page on Dependants will help clear that up for you.
As well as the need for your will to be sufficiently clear, you must also make adequate provision for your dependants. Anyone who is financially dependent on you at the time of your death may be able to make a claim against your estate if you don’t make reasonable provision for them in your will. For important information about who may be able to make a claim against you, and what to do if you are concerned about a claim, please see our Can you disinherit family and dependants? page.
(If a term is in bold, that means it's in our Glossary.)
Spouses or civil partners are the usual primary beneficiaries
If you are not in a formal relationship with your partner, they must be specifically mentioned in your will
Children can be beneficiaries under a will, but you must be careful how you refer to them
Your wider family can be beneficiaries, but make sure you identify them clearly
The law provides remedies for family and dependants who are disinherited
There are certain people you need to provide for in your will
Identifying named beneficiaries is especially important if they are not family members
Leaving gifts to charity in your will can support a good cause and have advantages for your estate
The failure of gifts in a will can be caused by the will itself, an issue with the asset, or debts owed by the estate
Distributing an estate to overseas beneficiaries may require particular care