None of us like to think about the fact that we’re going to die one day, despite the unavoidable fact that the grim reaper is coming for us all. Maybe that’s why many of us Kiwis put off the task of estate planning data indicates over half of us don’t have a will.
Some of us assume we don’t need a will because we don’t have enough assets. Others just don’t consider it, and more of us still just think we’ll live to a ripe old age so can arrange our affairs sometime closer to our death.
Well, life isn’t always that convenient. The grim truth is that over 33,000 New Zealanders die every year, that’s nearly enough to fill Eden Park. While our chances of dying increase as we age, there’s still plenty of young and middle-aged people that pass away each year.
Even if we’re young and healthy, that isn’t the same as being immortal. Being young and healthy won’t protect us from dying in a car accident or a natural disaster, or from a sudden illness or injury. We can never be truly sure what tomorrow will bring.
Why we need a will
No matter how straightforward our circumstances, having an up to date will ensures everyone understands what we’d like done with our estate – that is, our assets, debts, and anything else in our name after we’re gone. This can include who will be responsible for carrying out our final wishes, our funeral instructions, who will be the testamentary guardian of our children and who should benefit from our assets, including any specific gifts or donations we might want to make.
When we die, everything we own, and everything we owe, is called our estate. This might include:
Home and other real estate
Retirement accounts, including KiwiSaver
Jewellery, watches, personal effects
Collectibles, paintings, books, clothing, musical instruments, family heirlooms, and so on
A will is also important for naming our executor and trustee – the person or persons who will be responsible for applying to the High Court for probate, collecting all our assets, paying all our debts, managing our estate during the process, carrying out our final wishes, and dealing with any disputes.
If we die without a will in NZ
If we die without a will and have assets worth more than $15,000, then the law decides where everything goes and what is to be done. Our loved ones will probably have to navigate a lengthy and difficult process to determine how our assets are divided and what happens to the people who depend on us.
It’s not always pretty either, as the changing nature of NZ families, (including higher divorce and separation rates, more single parents, blended families, special laws about Māori land, and NZ’s high rate of family trusts), means that even seemingly simple situations can soon be not-so-simple for those left behind. This might mean our entire estate could end up going to an estranged spouse because we were never legally divorced, or to a sibling we haven’t seen in years.
It can also lead to disputes. We might think our family and friends would never do this, but people who have lost a loved one sometimes express their grief in unexpected ways.
Making a will isn’t hard
Perhaps the biggest single barrier to making a will is the hassle involved. Many of us assume that writing a will is a complex or expensive process that requires the aid of a lawyer. We might put it off because we think we don’t have the money or time to do it properly.
In fact, there are several ways to make a perfectly legal will without consulting a lawyer. If our situation is nice and simple, then we can use boilerplate forms with templated language, where all we have to do is fill in the names of our heirs and the amounts left to each one.
For a little more flexibility, we can use an inexpensive online will-maker that allows us to create a customised will. Online NZ platforms include:
We can even write out a will by hand, although it must be correctly witnessed and meet other criteria.
However, in more complex situations - such as blended families or multiple assets, it is advisable to spend some money and discuss your will requirements with a lawyer. It may not be as expensive as you first thought.
Changing a will
Wills can be changed, they’re not set in stone. If our life situation isn’t as settled as we’d like, if our circumstances change, or if we simply change our mind, we can just write a new will. Even if we decide to make a completely new will, we can still use the old one as a reference, which makes the process faster.
Who can make a will?
Anyone of sound mind who is at least 18 years old can make a will. A person under 18 may make a will if they are (or have been) married or in a civil union or de facto relationship. Others under the age of 18 can make a will if given approval by the Family Court or if they are in the military or are a seagoing person.
The bottom line, why you need a will in NZ
For just a small investment of time, money, or both, we can purchase the peace of mind that comes with the knowledge our loved ones will be taken care of when we’re gone, and of knowing that we’re not leaving a mess behind. That’s something we can’t put a price on.
Disclaimer: we’re not lawyers, and this is not legal advice. For further information, seek the services of a suitably qualified professional.