What is a will?

What actually is a will?

A will is a binding testamentary document that allows a testator to appoint executors to administer their estate and dispose of it to the beneficiaries chosen by the testator.

  • A testamentary document is a document taken to be proof of your wishes to be followed on your death.
  • The testator is the person making the will. If it’s your will that’s being referred to, then you are the testator.
  • The executors are the people (it’s best to have more than one) that you have chosen to look after your affairs. They ‘execute’ the will in accordance with your wishes.
  • Your estate is everything you own – money, property, assets and other possessions - minus everything you owe.
  • The beneficiaries are the people who you are leaving something to in your will, whether it is money, assets, individual items, or you are letting them off a debt.

Or in other words:

Your will is the formal document that sets out what is to happen to your property and possessions when you die. It is a legal document that is binding on your executors – which means that they don’t have any choice whether or not to follow it.

There are plenty of reasons to make a will. In fact, it’s almost better to ask, ‘Why wouldn’t you have a will?’ See more in the other pages of Do I need a will?

A will only takes effect on the death of the person who made it and can be revoked at any time before then.

If you don't have a valid will you are said to be intestate. This means that neither you nor anyone else – except the law – has control over what happens to your property after your death. This is not an ideal situation, for many reasons. See more on our page about Avoiding intestacy.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that!

How is your will set out?

A will is usually divided into clauses, and they generally fall into a normal pattern:

  • introductory clauses which identify you and your executors;
  • your funeral wishes;
  • appointing guardians for your children who have not yet reached 18;
  • specific gifts of money, property, possessions and other assets;
  • the creation of trusts of property or assets;
  • gifts to charities;
  • disposing of the remainder – known as the residuary estate;
  • administrative provisions, to do with the interpretation of the will; and
  • execution provisions – the part where you and your witnesses sign.

It can be a very short document, or a very long one. The more complicated your estate, and the more people you want to benefit from it, the longer your will is likely to be.

You can read more in our sections about Making a will and What to include in a will.

What does all the jargon mean?

One of the things that puts people off legal documents generally is that they are filled with jargon and heavy language. Sadly that’s true, and in some respects it is unavoidable.

Your will is one of the most important legal documents you’ll ever come across. There are many words and phrases which need to be included in order to have full legal effect, and so that when it comes to interpreting them later on, there is no room for doubt what is intended by them.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to learn all the language in order to arrange your affairs. Using a straightforward system such as ours enables you to think about things in your own way, and leave us to turn it into the proper legal form.

We also know that many people do want to know more about the meanings of legal terms. So we have a handy glossary of all the legal terms and phrases that we use on our site or that are likely to appear in your will.