Unspoken issues around making a will

2 Sep 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Sep 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

In Northern Ireland, many people have not made a will, increasing the risk of intestacy to individuals and their families - while the lack of discussion about this issue also affects charities' funding.

Intestacy might happen for many reasons - but the consequences are much less varied.

Whenever a loved one dies without leaving a will, families in mourning are usually left dealing with significant layers of bureaucracy at the worst possible time.

What would already be complex administration can also add to the heartbreak and pain that people feel after losing a close relative.

But it remains the case that 40% of adults in Northern Ireland do not have a will.

This week Scope spoke with Elley Martin, Chair of Will to Give – a charities’ group that encourages people to leave a charitable legacy donation, as well as providing information on how to go through the process of drawing up a will – about what the local situation means both for individual people and the third sector.

She said that local people are not greatly aware of this issue and that many people do not even think about the importance of making a will.

“There are many cultural reasons in Northern Ireland as to why this might be the case. We don’t want to talk about death, we don’t want to think about death. Some people might feel it’s like you are inviting bad luck.”

At the same time, many local charities rely heavily on donations from individual estates but it remains an area that could provide significant extra funding – something that Will to Give has been set up to encourage.

The organisation currently has 49 member charities - ranging from massive operations working across various jurisdictions to much smaller, local organisations. The only eligibility criterion is that they have to work within Northern Ireland.

Problems for individuals

The fact that 40% of adults do not have a will does not mean that same percentage of people do not leave a will. It seems a fair assumption that this rate will go down among older people.

Ms Martin said she had no figures for the number of people who die intestate in Northern Ireland – and Scope also spoke with the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra), which said it does not collate these statistics either.

This means that the real extent and consequences of this problem in Northern Ireland is not clear. However, some trends around the making of wills are much better known.

According to Ms Martin, when it comes to making or amending wills there are major spikes centred on three different points in individuals’ lives – around the ages of 38, 68 and 82.

These trends emerge from general patterns in people’s lives – such as retirement, the death of a spouse, and more – and could be used to help target people who could be more easily encouraged to put together a will.

At the same time, the 40% figure is so substantial that raising this issue with adults of all ages might improve the local situation and help tackle intestacy.

Third sector interest

Will to Give was founded in 2011, to encourage people to think about leaving a donation to charity in their wills.

Ms Martin says they have three key points they want to get across to people across Northern Ireland.

“The first message is that people should get a will in place, regardless of their circumstances. Secondly, we ask people to think about charitable giving as part of their will and, thirdly, we want them to think about the great, positive differences they can do by making a donation.”

The importance of legacy funding – a term Ms Martin dislikes, says is “pompous” and that clouds the simple issue of leaving a charitable donation in a will – varies from charity to charity but is undeniably important.

She works in fundraising and marketing for NI Chest Heart Stroke, which has been in operation for over 70 years, and says that donations from people’s estates accounts for between 40% and 50% of their funding, in general.

Smee & Ford recently did some substantial research into the importance of donations from individual estates to charities across the UK.

Key facts include:

  • Charitable estates (the total value of wills which included at least one charitiable donation) were worth £15.0bn in 2015 growing by over £2.2bn over a two year period
  • 14.6% of the value of charitable estates (donor wealth) went to charities – so £2.240bn worth of donations in 2015
  • 36,080 estates in 2015 contained a gift to charity (6 in every 100 deaths)
  • These 36,080 people left 118,734 charitable legacies

The report states further: “Legacy income has grown significantly, especially over the last 3 years from £1.8bn in 2011/12 to over £2.2bn in 2014/15. The number of charities supported has also diversified: from 1,735 organisations in 2007/08 to 2,249 organisations in 2013/14. Data is still being compiled for 2015 but we should expect the final figure to exceed 2013/14.”

Ms Martin said: “Legacy giving stems from different motivations compared to other methods of giving, such as putting coins in a box. It is important for the sector to try and understand what people’s motivations are in terms of giving. However, if you look at the local situation in comparison with the rest of the UK, we could be doing more.”

The current situation

Will to Give was set up in 2011 and has grown quickly, and is keen to continue to extend its reach, both by increasing its membership and by doing more work that encourages legacy giving. It currently works in a number of partnerships – including with Sector Matters over notifications relating to charitable donations, and also with solicitors to help raise awareness about the need to write a will, and improve the feeling of accessibility for people seeking to do so – and hopes to build more.

Recent research by Nicva appears to indicate two things – that legacies could be a significant growth area for charities in Northern Ireland, and that this is an issue that not many people in NI have given significant thought.

In 2014, they found that only 2% of people have made a pledge, while 95% said they had no plans to do so, but 3% would consider it – however, the same research found that only 66% would rule it out entirely, with 9% saying they would consider making a legacy pledge if charities outlined how it would be spent, and a further 9% saying better communication on legacy giving would encourage them to make a pledge.

The recent State of the Sector report noted a 2013 Individual Giving Study which revealed that 22% of people were either 'very likely' or 'quite likely' to leave a legacy to charity in their will. This figure is comparable with UK levels with 18% of adults reporting that they would consider leaving a charitable gift in their will.

However, Sector Matters recorded just 510 charitable wills in 2013, compared to 15,000 deaths. This means just 3% of Northern Irish deaths in 2013 led to a charitable will, compared to 7% in England and Wales.

Local individuals, their loved ones, and also third-sector organisations could all benefit from talking a bit more about death.

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