A will is a legal document that sets out what you want to happen to your assets after you die. These assets are called your estate and may include your house, land, car, bank accounts, jewellery, clothes, household goods or investments. A will can also deal with how your debts will be paid and from what assets. A will may also say who should look after any dependent children under the age of 18. All adults should have a valid will. It’s the best way to make sure that your assets are distributed in the way you would like after you die.
Who can make a will?
Anyone aged 18 or older can make a will. You will need to have “testamentary capacity”. This means that you must:
- know and understand what a will is, as well as its nature and effect
- be able to communicate what you want to put in your will and why.
If there could be any doubt about whether you have testamentary capacity (for example, if you are taking heavy pain medicine that is affecting your thinking), it’s a good idea to get a doctor’s certificate.
Why is it important to make a will?
Even if you don’t own much, making a will is a good idea. Having a will makes it easier for your family and friends to make legal and financial arrangements after you die. Without a will, these arrangements can be complicated and expensive.
A will is particularly important for anyone with a family or dependants, especially if they are separated or divorced.
If you don’t make a will, the law will decide who gets your property when you die, and it might not be who you would like. It is less expensive after you die if you have a will as the fees in obtaining letters of administration when there is no will are much higher than obtaining a Grant of Probate where there is a will.
How do I make a will?
There are several ways to make a will.
- See a lawyer – A lawyer can help you draft a will. The cost of preparing a will varies. Ask around to find the best option for you. If you can’t afford to pay, Cancer Council may be able to arrange a lawyer to draft a will for free.
- Use the SA Public Trustee – The SA Public Trustee can help eligible customers draw up a will for free. To see if you are eligible and to find out more about their services visit their website.
- To support people writing their Will, Cancer Council SA has partnered with one of Australia’s leading online Will’s writing platforms, Safewill. Through the online service that Safewill offers, you can produce a simple, legally binding Will that is reviewed by Safewill’s legal advisers.
Can I write my own will?
Some people buy a kit from a newsagency or post office to draft their own will. You can also write a legally binding Will online with Safewill. It is important to know that there are certain requirements for a will to be valid. If you do not understand or are unclear about these requirements, using a lawyer ensures you get it right.
What’s in a will?
A will usually includes:
- who should have responsibility for carrying out your instructions (executor) – this can be a family member, friend or the SA Trustee & Guardian
- who you want to leave your money and property to (beneficiaries)
- who you wish to look after your children if you and the other parent both die before the youngest child turns 18 (guardians)
- your wishes for funeral, cremation or other arrangements.
Before you talk to someone about making a will, think about who you would like to appoint in these roles.
Some assets such as superannuation and insurance may not form part of your estate. Benefits may be paid directly to your dependants, which means your will won’t have any effect on them.
What makes a will valid?
For a will to be valid it must be:
- in writing – handwritten, typed or printed
- signed and dated on every page and witnessed by two people who are not beneficiaries in the will nor their spouses, and who are aged over 18. They will need to witness your signature and sign their own name on every page. They both need to be present at the same time with you and use the same pen with one staple through the document (and avoid taking the staple out and replacing it).
Witnessing a signature doesn’t mean the witness wrote the will or read and understood what’s in it. It just means that they saw the person who made the will (the testator) sign the document.
If your will does not meet these requirements, it may not be enforceable. The Court has the power to grant probate (confirm that the will is valid) or deny probate, and your property could be distributed as if you had not made a will. In exercising this power, the Court needs to be satisfied that the document sets out how you want your assets to be distributed.
It is generally a good idea to get professional assistance with making a will. This is to ensure the will is valid and that particular parts are written in such a way that they are legally correct (so that a Court will find that they are effective). It is also a good idea to have the will signed in front of the lawyer to ensure this is
If there are any questions as to the validity of your will, the costs to your estate will likely increase.
Where should I keep my will?
Keep your will in a safe place. Your lawyer will usually hold the will for you, or you could keep it with your other important documents. Alternatively, the SA Public Trustee offers a free will storage service for eligible customers. It’s important to tell your executor where your will is kept.
I made a will a few years ago. Do I have to update it?
It’s a good idea to review a will regularly (e.g. every five years) to check it is up to date.
If you got married since you made a will, you will need to make a new will. If you got divorced, separated or had children since your last will, it may be a good idea to write a new will or have your lawyer help you make a formal addition called a codicil.
Can my will be challenged?
Yes. South Australian law expects that you make “proper provision” for certain people. These include:
- current spouses
- de facto partners who are living with you around the time of your death
- financially dependent grandchildren
- any other financially dependent people in your household
If you don’t make provisions for these people, they can go to the Court and challenge (contest) your will. The Court will consider their needs, their relationship to you and whether they contributed to your estate (e.g. as part of a marriage).
If you want to leave any of these people out of your will, you should talk to a lawyer.
What happens if I don’t make a will?
If you die without a will (called intestate) an administrator (often a relative) will be appointed to carry out similar duties to an executor and distribute your estate according to a standard formula. This may not work out the way you would have wanted.
If you do not have a will, legal procedures may be more complicated, time-consuming and expensive. This may cause greater expense and worry to your family.