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Frequently Asked Questions

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InHouse Wills & Probate

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Little Things Mean a Lot


Nowadays we can’t turn on the TV without coming across a program about antiques, often featuring a treasured item passed down the generations. The expert’s valuation may be minimal, but usually the current owner claims a great attachment to the item as being an important link to a departed relative. So whether or not these “personal chattels” have major monetary value, it can be important to use our Will to pass them on appropriately – but what is the best way to do it?

A clear, simple Will is always a good starting point – ‘everything equally between the children’ is a typical intention. For the executor administering the estate that intention is relatively easy to implement for money from savings or from selling the house – but it is tricky to divide between the children the treasured grandfather clock or the piece of jewellery that is regarded by all as a family heirloom. Hence, simply letting chattels fall into the residue of the estate can create practical problems.

A Will could contain a list of particular items to go to designated beneficiaries. Indeed, the Will of William Shakespeare is famous for having left Anne Hathaway his ‘second-best bed’. Any list needs to be kept in line with your current wishes, which could mean rewriting the Will each time you have a new grandchild or when your children finally admit that their taste in furniture doesn’t actually include your treasured items.

That’s why people may prefer to include within their Will a reference to a ‘letter of wishes’. This letter is not itself a formal part of the Will, so you can write it yourself and update it as easily and as often as you wish. The letter sets out what you want to happen to personal items – be that a specific list of gifts or perhaps just some general indications such as letting friends choose a keepsake or two. The Will asks the executors/trustees to follow this letter of wishes. However they are not obliged to and can use their judgement to interpret your wishes according to the situation at the time. That is great for providing flexibility, but it emphasises that you must choose executors / trustees that you can rely on to interpret your wishes appropriately. If you choose professional executors (who would not be keeping any items for themselves) they can be impartial about the implementation of your wishes.

But just what are personal chattels? The applicable definition (for Wills signed on 1/10/14 or later) is

tangible movable property, but not

In everyday terms you might think of that as contents of your home, plus any vehicles. Amongst the wide legal definition usually there will be items with a sentimental value that far outweighs their monetary worth. The definition includes pets and other domestic animals, whilst items used in your business, or items held solely as investments, might well be excluded.

It would be nice to think that amongst the ordinary items that fill our homes there may be one or two valuable treasures. However that very possibility raises an extra problem if a Will simply divides the entire estate into shares – especially if a share is going to charity. Each beneficiary must receive their entitlement, but for a charity that amounts to an obligation to make sure that they receive full value. This can result in the bother of all the contents of the house having to be professionally valued – even though the cost of the valuation might ultimately be more than the value of the goods themselves. Hence it is often a good idea to leave your personal chattels to just one person or, if to be shared, then only between individuals who will be able to agree easily how to divide them.

Whilst creating a Will is a serious matter, one particular client took the opportunity of dealing with personal chattels to remind her family of her sense of fun. By her fireplace she kept a large number of brass ornaments which needed frequent polishing. For one of her sons it is always a source of banter that she should get rid of them to save the bother of cleaning. So, with a twinkle in her eye, she included in her Will a gift of those very items to that son. She knew that probably he will not keep them long, but by making the gift she  had left him an invaluable reminder of their good relationship.

Before 1st October 2014 an older legal definition of personal chattels was used. That had a long list of types of items included in the definition - although generally the difference from the current definition was small. Wills signed on or after 1/10/2014 use the new definition, Wills signed before that date use the old definition. As always, if you are unclear how this might impact your situation, then do contact us.

Personal Chattels

Items of sentimental value can be just as important as our money - what are the considerations when making a Will?