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Why make a will and what can a will do?

Why make a will?

Making a will is important to ensure your family, loved ones, friends are looked after.  Dying without leaving a will, or leaving an invalid one, is to die intestate.   Dying intestate means property left (the estate) is distributed according to the intestacy law.  The intestacy law has been prescribed by legislation as the ‘default’ rules to apply in these circumstances. The problem is that the intestacy formula for distribution may not produce the desired outcome.

To make a will is to properly document your wishes and instructions for what you want to have happen to your property when you die.  There is no legal obligation in Australia to make a will, but it is still worthwhile to do so, regardless of the size of your estate.  Here are some reasons why, and what a will can do.

10 reasons to make a will:

  • ensure your property is distributed according to your wishes – put your intentions for what you want in writing;
  • choose and appoint personal representatives to act on you behalf;
  • facilitate efficient administration, reduce family stress and worry at a time of mourning;
  • decide who benefits and how from your estate;
  • decide who inherits family heirlooms, jewellery, collections;
  • reduce potential for family disputes,
  • make it easier for others to finalise your affairs;
  • provide for minor children and dependents, protect beneficiaries with specific needs – establish trust funds;
  • consider asset protection issues for beneficiaries who are professionals or in business – establish trusts;
  • make provision for pets.

Choose your personal representatives when you make a will

  • Personal representatives‘ refers to executors and trustees and also to administrators, the term used when no will was left or no valid will.
  • A will is where you document who you wish to be your personal representatives.
  • Executors carry out the will-maker’s instructions as left in their will and on their behalf. They attend to disposal of the body, administer the estate; collect the assets, pay debts then distribute the property  according to the terms of the will.   Executors are required to defend the estate against any claims.
  • You can choose and appoint in your will people you know and trust, and who know you, to act on your behalf as your personal representatives when you die. Preferably seek their consent first.
  • Choosing personal representatives is especially important if you have minor children or children with disabilities.
  • With no will, personal representatives are appointed by the Probate Court of the Supreme Court.  Someone needs to apply to the Court, a family member or public trustee.  It is a strict legal process and legal assistance should be sought.

When you make a will you choose who is to inherit, what they get and when

  • With a will you can say who you want to give your hard-earned assets to.  You can express your wishes for how your dependents are to be provided for. 
  • While succession law permits freedom of choice in to who make gifts to by will, care needs to be taken, as legislation everywhere requires ‘adequate provision’ be made for anyone ‘eligible’ to make a claim for family provision.  The last thing wanted are bitter and costly disputes.
  • To make a gift to a friend or non-family, charity, sporting club or community organisation, carers then you need to make a will.  The statutory rules of intestacy click here, only provide a legal formula for distribution along family or blood lines.
  • Choose who will take the family heirlooms, jewellery, artworks, special articles, collections

Provide for minor children – appoint a guardian

  • If you have minor children you can appoint someone to act as guardian. Such appointments however should be carefully considered, and in consideration of individual family circumstances.
  • Trusts can be established by will to provide for their maintenance, education and other expenses.
  • By making a will you can declare the age at which your children can take their inheritance, or in stages.

Establish trusts for special purposes or objectives

Provide for a anyone with a disability

A will can be used to establish special purpose disability trust arrangements to provide for a loved one living with a disability.  

Spendthrifts, gambling, drinking and recreational drugs

Similarly use a will to establish a trust fund to provide for any beneficiaries who may be spendthrifts or may engage in gambling, drinking or drugs.   Professional legal and financial/accounting advice is essential to ensure these structures are set up properly for individual circumstances.


To be certain a step-child benefits or step-grand child they need to be named in a will with  instructions as to the gift. 

Professionals, business owners, primary producers

In these situations and complex and larger estates, a will becomes part of an overall estate plan.  Professional advice needs to be sought from accountants, lawyers, tax and financial advisers to establish and maintain an estate plan tailored to individual circumstances.

Finalising your digital estate and online footprint

  • With much of our life online there are ever increasing ‘accounts’ of all kinds.  From social media, email, photographs and subscriptions to taxation, business, professional, financial and health data.  What happens to these when we go?  How may we make arrangements for terminating accounts effectively and conclusively while protecting our identity?
  • Procedures for the termination of accounts where they exist vary among providers.  As in other areas presentation of authenticated evidence is required that the person seeking to deal with it has been properly authorised.
  • This is made easier if someone with technological knowledge is appointed by will as a digital executor and given specified powers to deal with the digital estate, as defined in the will.
  • Finalising your digital estate.  You can nominate or appoint someone in your will to be a digital executor to do this rather than leaving the issue unsaid.

Pets- make arrangements for their maintenance and leave provision

Instructions for what you would like done with your pets can be made in your will.  For example you can name someone who has agreed to care for them and make provision for  their maintenance.  This can be by a lump sum or by establishing a trust fund.  Read more about Pets – making provision for their care in a will here.

The Young Lawyers Animal Law Committee of the Law Society of New South Wales have compiled a useful guide What about me? Your pets & your will” containing practical information to consider when deciding what to do.

Estate administration – administrative efficiency, costs to the estate

  • A valid will facilitates estate administration.  Without leaving a will someone who is suitable has to be sought to administer the estate for one thing.
  • Certified copies of the death certificate and will are at the top of the list of documents banks, government agencies, ask for in their checking process of settling accounts of deceased estates.  A will is the official legal document of a will-maker’s instructions and ‘speaks’ for them.
  • Without a will no-one has been appointed to represent the estate.  As there is no named executor someone (spouse, partner, family or the public trustee) has to apply to the Probate Court for permission (letters of administration) to administer the estate. This requires more documents and information which all takes time to prepare.  Professional legal advice is essential, generating extra costs to the estate,  less for the beneficiaries) and delays distribution.
  • Leaving a will with a named executor assists administration.  Ordinarily this helps the process of contacting government agencies, instrumentalities, financial institutions and dealing with officialdom generally.

Seek legal advice to make a will which is valid from a lawyer, public trustee or trustee company.  To find a lawyer offering services in this area follow the links on the  Australian Law Societies here and links to State and Territory public trustees are here.

B Stead
BHS Legal
10 May 2014, updated July 2023

Important notice: This article is intended for general interest and information only. It contains general information and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. It is not legal advice nor should it be used as such. Always consult a legal practitioner for specialist legal advice specific to your needs and circumstances and rely upon that. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy at the time of writing applicable laws may change.

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Kings Canyon in Central Australia, Northern Territory, B Stead.
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