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Losing your will to live - plain English instead of legal jargon

Plain English Campaign have been watching the BBC 2 programme 'Can't take it with you' and clearly so have many other people, judging by the increase in queries received at the campaign office on the subject of wills and probate.
Let us know about any difficulties you have with understanding the wording of wills.

A few years ago, the outcry on this subject resulted in the Government calling for regulation among the growing number of will writers. Those without a valid legal qualification fall outside of the compensation currently available from The Law Society, in the event of disputes resulting from unclear will writing.

The Law Society are launching a campaign to press for better regulations in will writing. Plain English Campaign supports this and the need for plain English in all legal documents, wherever possible.

Plain English Campaign's popular free guide about wills is currently under review with legal experts to reflect changes in legislation. We would encourage everyone to seek qualified legal advice for their wills. And be aware that you have a right to ask for explanations and information in language that you can understand.

Below is an article written at the request of the Railway Pensions magazine, Penfriend, who wanted to provide a plain English explanation about wills for their pension scheme members. Having one of the earliest Plain English Campaign corporate memberships, their pension scheme guide was the first to receive our Crystal Mark, and continues to use plain English for the benefit of their scheme members.

Plain English explanation for dealing with a will

There are some terms in this article which might be unfamiliar. They are listed in alphabetical order below with a plain English explanation. They are in bold type in the text so that you know they are explained.

The person who deals with your estate if you die without leaving a will.
A person who benefits under your will.
The people and organisations you owe money to.
Everything you own when you die.
A person appointed by you in your will to deal with your estate.
A legal document which confirms a person’s right to deal with your affairs.
Grant of probate
The official document giving your executors authority.
Inheritance tax
A tax on your estate.
You are intestate if you die without leaving a will.
London Gazette
A newspaper for placing official announcements in.
The certificate giving your executors authority to deal with your estate.
Registry Office
The office where deaths are recorded. The forms your executor fills in about you are issued by this office.

No one likes to think about their own death but we should all make plans for it. Making a valid will and setting out your wishes will make life simpler for the people dealing with your affairs after your death. If you don’t make a will the law sets out who should get your estate, and these may not be the people you would wish to benefit. If you have no close relatives your estate could even end up with the Government. Your will should appoint executors to look after your affairs. Most people appoint two. You can appoint more but this can lead to delays and extra expense. Your will should include your wishes about organ or body donation. Make sure that your executors or close friends know where you keep it.

If you are in a pension scheme you should ask the scheme administrators for an ‘Expression of wish’ form. You can use the form to tell the scheme administrators who should be paid any lump sum death benefit when you die. They will normally do what you ask. They can pay the lump sum without waiting for probate and it will not form part of your estate for inheritance tax purposes.

Your executors have to try to carry out the wishes set out in your will. You need to be sure that they are capable of doing this and are willing to act. You can appoint whoever you wish, including your beneficiaries. You should choose people who will work well together.

When you die your executors should:

  • tell your doctor;
  • go to the local Registry Office to register your death;
  • fill in the form BD8 if the Registrar hands them one and send it to the local Social Security office;
  • find your will;
  • help with the funeral arrangements;
  • take care of your property including making sure that your home is secure and valuable items are stored safely;
  • write to your bank, building society, credit card company, tax office and so on to let them know you have died; and
  • open a bank account to receive money owed to your estate.

They should advertise the death in the London Gazette and a local newspaper. This is so people can send in details of their claims. They have two months to do this. Doing this protects the executors from claims if creditors or beneficiaries come to light afterwards.

The Registrar of Deaths issues the death certificate. Your executors should ask the Registrar for signed copies to send to organisations such as banks and insurance companies. Photocopies will not be accepted so the executors should make sure that they get enough original signed copies. This will prevent delays later. They must also ask the Probate Registry for the forms needed to apply for a grant of probate. These forms should be filled in and returned to the Probate Registry with the will and the death certificate. If the forms are approved the executors then sign an oath swearing that the content of the forms is true.

When the grant of probate has been issued the executors identify all your assets and collect them in. They pay your debts, funeral expenses and make the payments and gifts stated in your will. The executors must then prepare accounts for your estate showing all your assets and what happened to them. They must also show the payments of debts, expenses, legacies and so on.

Probate checklist

  • Register death and get death certificates
  • Get a copy of the will (if there is one)
  • Deal with funeral arrangements as the will instructs
  • Tell the medical people about organ or body donation
  • Get grant of probate if there is a will
  • Get letters of administration if there was no will
  • List all assets and liabilities
  • Write to banks, insurance companies and so on to tell them about the death
  • Prepare a valuation of everything in the estate
  • Work out if inheritance tax will be due
  • Collect all the assets and pay the debts
  • Fill in the forms for the Probate Registry and send them in
  • Pay the inheritance tax (arrange to borrow the money if necessary)
  • Go to the Probate Registry to swear the forms, pay the fees and pay any inheritance tax
  • The grant of probate or letters of administration arrive
  • Place adverts in local and national papers asking for creditors and claims against the estate to get in touch
  • Complete tax forms
  • Get inheritance tax discharge certificate
  • Pay any debts and legacies
  • Prepare estate accounts and close the bank account

Help for those left behind

There are benefits available depending on your circumstances. If your wife, husband or civil partner has died you may be entitled to a tax-free Bereavement Payment. This link will give you more information.

There are tax credits and other benefits you can claim. Your local Jobcentre or council will have leaflets explaining them. You can also get information from the DWP website on or from HM Revenue and Customs on or you can phone HM Revenue and Customs.

These links will provide you with more details

If you are having problems with understanding the language in wills or probate documents, please let us know. Call us on 01663 744409 or email to

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