8 common mistakes to avoid when drafting your Will

When preparing a Will, it is crucial that it is prepared in accordance with the relevant laws – in New South Wales, that law is the Succession Act 2006.  Otherwise, your Will is at risk of being an invalid document, or even capable of a number of different interpretations if not worded correctly, and therefore once you have passed away, your family may not be able to rely upon it as evidence of your wishes as to how you would like your Estate to be distributed.

Common mistakes found in Wills that are home-made, or even Wills that are made using a pre-filled document purchased online, are as follow.

Handwritten Will

Leaving your Estate to your spouse and your children, but not nominating any other beneficiaries

It is an unfortunate possibility that your spouse and your children will pass away at the same time as you.  And if you have not nominated any other beneficiaries in your Will, then you will be considered to have died intestate.

To avoid this, we always recommend that you nominate at least one more group of beneficiaries – whether it is your siblings, closest friends, or even a charity – so that there is at least one person or entity that can receive your Estate in the event that the main beneficiaries have passed away before, or at the same time as, you.

Appointing your spouse as your executor, but not nominating any other executors, or nominating the wrong executors

As per the above example, there is always a risk that your spouse will pass away at the same time as you.  Therefore you should have at least another person, or even 2 more people, nominated as your alternate executors.

The executor is responsible for the administration, distribution, and carrying out of your wishes as set out in your Will.  It is an important job, so you need to appoint someone who is able and willing to take on the role.

Keep in mind, too, that if your Estate will be gifted to your children once they turn a nominated age, then the executor usually also fulfils the role of trustee, and has the responsibility of looking after the assets held in trust for the children until they reach the nominated age.  So considering that the trust relationship may last for a significant period of time if your children are quite young at the time of your death, it may not be appropriate for you to, say, appoint your parents as the executors, because there is an increased risk that they will pass away before being able to fulfil their duties as trustee – it would be more appropriate for you to, say, appoint a sibling or friend as the executor.

Making specific gifts

If you want to leave a specific gift, such as your car or your home, to a beneficiary, then it is risky referring to the specific car (e.g. by detailing the make, model and registration plate) or the specific property (e.g. by its address).  If you no longer own that specific car or property at the time of your death, the gift would fail.  Rather, it is recommended that you describe such assets with reference to the type of asset it is – that is, “any motor vehicle I own at the time of my death” or “my principal place of residence at the time of my death”.

Not specifying a guardian for your children

Under the Guardianship of Infants Act 1916 (NSW), the surviving parent becomes the guardian, unless there are exceptional circumstances or orders in place (e.g. the deceased parent has sole custody).  If the other parent is no longer alive, or able to care for your children, and if you have not nominated a guardian in your Will, then the most suitable person to be the children’s guardian would need to apply to the Family Court for a parenting order under Part VII Division 5 of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), to grant them the right to care for the child.  Of course, making an application to the Court could be avoided by nominating a guardian in your Will.

What does your Estate consist of?

Jointly held assets may not be able to be gifted under your Will.  Take this scenario – you own a property with Family Member A as joint tenants, but you would like Family Member B to inherit your entire Estate.  You will be only able to gift to Family Member B those assets that are owned in your name outright, or owned with someone else but as tenants-in-common (in which case you have a distinct share in the ownership).  The rules around joint tenancy provide that upon the death of a joint tenant, the remaining joint tenants automatically become the owners of the property, despite what is provided for in your Will.  Therefore in the above scenario, Family Member A would become the sole owner of the property upon your death.

Not keeping your Will up to date

We always remind clients to revisit their Will every few years, to make sure that it remains current and relevant.  Have any named beneficiaries passed away since you drafted your Will?  Has there been a breakdown in relationships which may warrant appointing different beneficiaries?

The Will has not been signed and witnessed correctly

Not only must a Will be worded correctly, and cover all necessary points, but it must also be signed and witnessed correctly.  Too many times we see Wills that clients have prepared previously themselves, which have not been signed correctly, which have been witnessed by a named beneficiary, or which have been subsequently amended and “initialled” at the time of the amendment – the client believing that such an amendment is valid.

Where is the original Will?

Even if the Will has been drafted, signed and witnessed correctly, it’s not worth anything to anyone if no-one can find it after you pass away.  Ideally, the original Will should be kept in a fire-proof safe, and the location shared with your named executors – as well as some other trusted family members.  Shire Legal is able to hold its clients’ Wills and other important documents in its safe custody, at no charge.

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It is for the above reasons that it is so important to ensure that when drafting your Will, you obtain proper legal advice and have the Will prepared by a lawyer.  Otherwise you run the risk that it is not a valid document, and your Estate may not be gifted in accordance with your wishes.

If you have questions about planning your estate, contact the team at Shire Legal on 9526 3444 or info@shirelegal.com.au

But I don’t want my kids to move overseas if something happens to me …

Time and time again Shire Legal prepares Wills for parents who are living in Australia and whose ex-spouses are resident overseas, with little or no contact with the children. If the Australian parent dies, will the children be required to move overseas to live with their surviving parent?

Not necessarily. Under the Guardianship of Infants Act 1916 (NSW), the surviving parent becomes the guardian, unless there are exceptional circumstances or orders in place (e.g. the deceased parent has sole custody).  However, the child’s Australian relatives can apply to the Family Court for a parenting order under Part VII Division 5 of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), to grant them the right to care or visit the child.  Parenting orders may also be appropriate for step-parents, as an alternative to going through a formal adoption process.

As general rule when making parenting orders, the Court will consider what is in the best interests of the child, by:

  • ensuring the child has the benefit of both of their parents having a meaningful involvement in their lives, to the maximum extent consistent with the best interests of the child;
  • protecting children from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence;
  • ensuring that children receive adequate and proper parenting to help them achieve their full potential; and
  • ensuring that parents fulfil their duties, and meet their responsibilities, concerning the care, welfare and development of their children.

The principles followed by the Court are:

  • children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents, regardless of whether their parents are married, separated, have never married or have never lived together;
  • children have a right to spend time on a regular basis with, and communicate on a regular basis with, both their parents and other people significant to their care, welfare and development (such as grandparents and other relatives);
  • parents jointly share duties and responsibilities concerning the care, welfare and development of their children;
  • parents should agree about the future parenting of their children; and
  • children have a right to enjoy their culture (including the right to enjoy that culture with other people who share that culture).

The Court will of course take into account anyone nominated in the deceased parent’s Will as the child’s guardian.