Many people will only write one Will in their entire lifetime. They may write it several decades before their passing, but still find, as they reach their final years, that it continues to reflect their wishes.
However, the reality for most of us is that the circumstances and details of our lives, as well as those of the people around us, change over time: we get married, get divorced, get remarried, friends and family become estranged, financial situations change, health alters our constitution and outlook, and our visions for our legacies evolve.
This is why it is so important to ensure we amend our Wills as often as we need to. Whether it is because we wish to change executor, change beneficiaries, set up trusts, provide for charitable legacies, support the future needs of a new partner, or for some other reason; by revisiting a Will and changing its contents we can, with just a few sentences and a familiar flourish of signature, help provide clarity for the future while also reducing the possibility for contentious Wills and inheritance disputes among our loved ones.
Only 180 years after the Wills Act was introduced, there is a suggestion that the law around making Wills may need updating to reflect “changes in society, technology and medical understanding”. When one considers that Queen Victoria had just succeeded to the throne and that neither the car nor the computer had been invented, the statute has lasted rather well. However, recent developments in medicine and technology present new challenges not envisioned in Victorian times. As a member of ACTAPS, I had the pleasure of being invited to a Law Commission meeting on their proposals for bringing the law of Wills into the twenty-first century.
There had been quite a lot of sensationalist reporting on their proposals which they were keen to correct.
If you already have a Will but have not updated it following a change in circumstances, then the outcome of Martin v Williams may prompt you into action. It also threw light on the rights of cohabitees to make claims for financial provision from the estate of a deceased partner.
Under the provisions of the Inheritance Act 1975, cohabitees must prove that they were living as husband and wife (or as civil partners for same-sex couples) for a least two years prior to their death to make a claim. However, claims made by cohabitees are restricted to covering maintenance, i.e. living costs.
In the aforementioned case, Mr Martin made a Will 28 years prior to his death in 2014. In it, he left his residuary estate to his wife from whom he later separated. He then lived with his new partner, Mrs Williams from 2009 and they owned equal shares of their property as tenants in common. Mrs Williams was also the joint owner of another property with her sister, which they had inherited from their father and was occupied by her sister.
The Law Commission says that Wills need to be brought into the 21st century. In many ways, the urgency makes sense. For at least a decade now most of us have been using digital technology to help us negotiate our banking, shopping, working lives, dating, and family lives, – the list could go – but one area in which we are yet to fully embrace the digital, remains Wills, where we are still doing things in largely the same way our Victorian forbears did.
But, before we throw out the baby with the bathwater, not everything that is old is out-dated, so the question has to be, is our current Wills system fit for purpose in the year 2017 and for the foreseeable beyond? Does it do enough to protect vulnerable members of society; does it provide fairness, cost effectiveness, efficiency, reliability and accessibility?
Three women who faked their elderly neighbour's Will have received custodial sentences following a trial at Cardiff Crown Court. Karen O'Brien was sentenced to four and a half years, Gemma Gauci to four years and Leanne Collins to one year - all for conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation.
The women claimed to have found the Will while cleaning the home of the deceased man, Mr James Wilmot. The faked Will named Karen O'Brien and Gemma Gauci as executors and beneficiaries, and Leanne Collins as another beneficiary. The late Mr Wilmot's estate was worth an estimated £320,000.