More than a 125 years after his death, Charles Dickens is still warning readers of the dangers of dying without a will. If you are lucky, your money goes to those you want to receive it, even if you die intestate. But, as Bleak House reminds us, there is always the possibility of an unpleasant and expensive legal dispute which eats up the dead person's estate, leaving potential beneficiaries with nothing.
Margaret Mansell and Colin Pilch lived together for seven years in north London, until he died at 40, without having made a will. Because they were unmarried, his estate automatically passed to his daughter of a former marriage, leaving Ms Mansell on the poverty line. After struggling for six months to obtain legal aid, she now faces a lengthy battle in the courts to try to obtain a share of the inheritance. This includes a regular pension from Mr Pilch's former employer, Hackney Council, and money from insurers.
"He died in an accident on holiday, which has been a shock in itself," Ms Mansell says. "I have now fallen out with his parents because I am making a claim on his estate. The whole thing has been like a nightmare."
A recent change in the law makes it easier for unmarried cohabitees of two years or more to apply for a share of an inheritance. But according to Sonia Purser of the Law Society this is only a small step forward: "It now means the unmarried partner can at least get on the first rung of the ladder, but the process is still costly and unpleasant."
Even if you are married to your partner, unnecessary complications can arise if you die intestate. Your spouse would automatically receive the estate up to the value of Pounds 125,000, the rest would be shared with any children. If the house is worth more than Pounds 125,000, the spouse could lose their home and children could receive money at 18, which you might have preferred to be placed in trust until later.
If you do not have children, your spouse would get up to Pounds 200,000 and the rest would be shared with your spouse's nearest blood relatives. If you have no spouse or children, the inheritance goes to parents, siblings or more distant relatives. If you have no relations, all your hard-earned wealth goes to the Government.
Another good reason to make a will is to avoid inheritance tax (IHT). Anyone - except a spouse - receiving an inheritance of more than Pounds 215,000 pays 40 per cent IHT on the excess. It can be avoided by following professional advice. (In Scotland the spouse receives the first Pounds 110,000 plus furniture up to Pounds 20,000, a cash sum of up to Pounds 30,000 and a proportion of the rest of the belongings.) An important aspect of your will is the naming of a legal guardian if you have children. Money left to children under 18 will need to be left in trust and you can specify who manages these funds. You can also make sure your treasured possessions go to someone who appreciates them, be they back-copies of Beano, jewellery or pets.
Once your will is made you should review it regularly. Getting married revokes a will (except in Scotland) and if any of your chosen beneficiaries die before you, you need to add a codicil which alters part of your will, or make a new one.
Only one in three people draws up a will. Some worry that they are tempting fate by even thinking about death, but fear of solicitors' fees and lack of time is more likely to be a deterrent.
The cost of writing a will can vary from Pounds 23 to Pounds 125, according to a recent Which? report, which also points out that an expensive will does not necessarily mean a better one. Banks, insurance companies and specialist writers of wills all offer a service which is potentially as good or bad as any solicitor's.
Barrister Gillian Jenkins is one of the few experts on wills in Britain who visits clients in their homes. Her business, dubbed Wills on Wheels, has been operating since 1989. For teachers in the London area she offers lunchtime school visits at discounted rates, if at least two clients are on the premises. Her normal charges are Pounds 75 for a single will, Pounds 95 double (showing the wishes of a couple).
"It is not a hassle to make a will, although a lot of people think it is," says Mrs Jenkins. "It takes a maximum of one hour. You need to have some idea of what your estate is worth so the tax can be calculated and if you have specific needs, you will need information on what you have." Details of insurance policies, premium bonds, property and treasured possessions should all be to hand.
Members of the National Union of Teachers can have their wills written for free by Commercial Union's legal department if they name the company as executor (administrator and distributor of the estate). However, last October's Which? report advises against appointing a professional as executor as it can incur unnecessary expense for beneficiaries.
You can make your own will and save on costs, but look into it carefully - there are potential pitfalls. The Consumers' Association's Wills and Probate (Pounds 10.99) provides information on this and its Make Your Own Will Action Pack (Pounds 10.99) includes up-to-date information and will forms. Other DIY will packs are sold at stationery shops.
Gillian Jenkins (0181 876 0314); Consumers' Association (0800 252100); Commercial Union (0171 283 7500).