Law on wills to be brought up to date

Many thousands of people die each year without a valid will, often forcing those left behind to face the trauma and expense of legal disputes over inheritance. The Law Commission, independent law reform adviser to the government, has announced a review of the law relating to wills.

It is estimated that 40 per cent or more of the adult population does not have a will, and where they do, problems with the existing law can mean they are not always valid. If a will is invalid, or there is no will, the deceased person’s property can be distributed in a way that they might not have wanted or that does not provide support for their family. Unmarried cohabitants are particularly at risk, as the law gives them no automatic protection if their partner dies without a valid will. Charities can also lose out if someone who wants to leave a gift to charity fails to make a valid will.

The Law Commission’s project will look in particular at whether the strict formalities that dictate how a will should be written and signed are out of date and whether reform is needed to keep up with modern developments, particularly in technology. It will consider the law that governs what happens when people make a mistake when drawing up a will and how far it should be possible to rectify mistakes so that the clear intentions of the will-maker are not frustrated.

The project will also investigate the law applying to mental capacity and will making. A will can be challenged if there are doubts as to the mental capacity of the person who made it. This is a difficult question for lawyers, and can lead to expensive and complicated disputes. It is also a growing problem, as conditions that affect capacity become more common as people live longer.

Professor Elizabeth Cooke, Law Commissioner with responsibility for property, family and trust law, said:

“This project provides an excellent opportunity to review the outdated law of wills to encourage and facilitate will-making in the 21st century. The current legal rules can be unclear, undermining the deceased person’s wishes.

“Reform in this area of law will provide greater certainty and protection both for those making wills and those who stand to benefit from them. Better, up-to-date law should encourage more people to make arrangements for when they die, and avoid the need for expensive litigation, which can divide families and cause great distress.”

This review is one of nine projects the Law Commission is launching for its new 12th Programme of Law Reform.

Notes for editors
1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
2. For more details on this project and other projects in the new 12th Programme, visit www.lawcom.gov.uk
3. For all press queries please contact:
Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations:  020 3334 3305
Jackie Samuel:  020 3334 3648
Email:  communications@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk