What to include in a will

What can you leave in your will?

In England and Wales, you can distribute your property in almost any way you choose when you die. However, as you might expect, there are some restrictions. For example:

  • Probably the most well-known restriction is that you must pay any inheritance tax you owe before your assets can be passed on.
  • It’s also well-understood that your debts have to be settled out of your estate.
  • Perhaps less well-known is the fact that you must also make ‘reasonable provision’ for anyone who is financially dependent on you. You cannot simply use your will to disinherit people (see Can you disinherit family and dependants? for more information).

Subject to those, and some other more specialist restrictions (such as whether you can put conditions in a will), you can use your will to give your property and assets however and to whoever you wish.

What kinds of gifts are there?

When it comes to writing your will, there are a number of different ways that you can divide your assets, all of which are detailed in our Gifts in wills page. The most important options to consider are:

  • specific gifts;
  • non-specific gifts; and
  • your residuary estate.

Your residuary estate is made up of anything that has not been included in specific or non-specific gifts, or any debts owed by the estate. It can include personal possessions, or simply any money that you haven’t allocated elsewhere. Residuary estates are often left to charity, but a wide range of possibilities are set out in our Residuary estate page.

You are free to give gifts to individuals or people jointly: see Individual and joint legacies.

Outright gift or gift in trust?

You can leave gifts in your will either outright to named beneficiaries or in trust. An outright (or absolute) gift passes directly to the intended recipient and is then theirs to do with as they wish. It will form part of their estate when they die. By contrast, a gift in trust means that the gift is held by your trustees and is in their control.

It may be that you give a beneficiary the right to use trust assets for the rest of their lifetime (known as a life interest trust). Alternatively, you can name a number of beneficiaries of the trust and leave a letter of wishes to your trustees (which they are likely to follow) with guidance as to how you'd like them to distribute the assets, but ultimately they make the final decision. While the assets are in trust, they do not form part of a beneficiary's estate for inheritance tax purposes.

Letters of wishes

Alongside your will you may need a separate letter of wishes. You can use this to record your wishes on a variety of things, such as:

  • detailed instructions on the distribution of personal possessions;
  • your preferences as to the upbringing of your children;
  • how you would like a discretionary trust to be managed.

See Letter of wishes for more information.

Your will is not just for leaving property

While many people think of their will only as a way to pass on individual gifts, a large number of different elements can actually be included in a will. Alongside gifts, you can also use your will to set out your wishes on a variety of other subjects. The most common options are any specific funeral wishes you may have, as well as whether you have considered organ donation.

This section also explains some of the more technical provisions usually included in a will, such as the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) provisions.

(If a term is in bold, that means it's in our Glossary.)