Many people assume that a person’s will can’t be changed after they have passed away, but this is not actually the case.

In fact, it may be possible for family or friends of the deceased to make a ‘deed of variation’ if they are named beneficiaries in a will. This is a document that, if written properly and approved by the relevant parties, can make changes to the will and how the estate is distributed.

In this article, we’ll explore how this process works, who can write a deed of variation, how to go about it, and when doing so might be a good idea.

How can I change someone’s will after they have died?

You can write a deed of variation if you are a beneficiary of the person who’s died, or you can get a solicitor to help you do so. Provided it meets certain legal requirements, it can then be used to add beneficiaries to a will or change how the estate is distributed.

Once the deed is written, it must be signed by any other beneficiaries of the will who would be worse off as a result of the proposed changes, any proposed new beneficiaries, and anyone else affected. The  executor, who is the person in charge of administering the estate, must also agree to the changes to make them legally binding.

This entire process normally takes between two weeks and a month, though it can be longer.

There are certain requirements that the deed must meet in order to be legally binding, and you can read about these on Gov.uk. It is a good idea to seek professional advice from a solicitor to make sure that the letter meets all these requirements and to clarify the tax consequences of any changes made.

If the proposed amendments to the will will result in a change to the amount of Inheritance Tax (IHT) paid, then you must also send a copy of the deed to HMRC within six months of the date that it is signed.

Multiple people can draw up deeds of variation for the same will (provided they affect different parts of the estate and don’t overlap), or the changes can all be detailed in a single letter. However, only beneficiaries of a will can apply for a deed of variation. 

You can make a deed of variation either before or after probate has been granted, but any changes to the will must be made within two years of death. Read more in our guide What is probate?.

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Why might you want to change someone’s will after they have died?

There are a few reasons why you might want to make changes to a will by making a deed of variation. For example:

  • Adding beneficiaries – if the will was written before grandchildren were born and  hadn’t been updated since, for example, then you may wish to have them added as beneficiaries.
  • Clarity – if any wording in the will is unclear, a deed of variation can simply be a way of clearing up any ambiguity so the estate can be passed on in a way that everyone is happy with.
  • Fairness – if, for example, one beneficiary has seen their financial circumstances change drastically, changes to the will could see them receive less or more inheritance in order to spread the estate more fairly.
  • Lack of a will – if the deceased does not leave a will, then a deed of variation can dictate how their estate is passed on. Otherwise, it will be distributed according to the rules of intestacy. Find out more about these below. 
  • Inheritance Tax (IHT) savings – the way an estate is passed on can have a considerable impact on how much IHT is paid. IHT is paid on the value of an estate above the IHT threshold of  £325,000. However, a deed of variation may help you to reduce the amount owed. For example:
    • Any part of an estate passed onto a spouse is not liable for IHT, so you might wish to redirect some or more of the inheritance to a surviving spouse. 
    • Funds passed to a charity are not liable for IHT. In addition, if at least 10% of the net value of the estate is left to a charity, IHT on some of the remaining assets is paid at a reduced rate of 36%.
    • If you were intending to gift some of your inheritance to someone else, such as your child, you could instead add them to the will as another beneficiary so they receive the money directly instead. If you were to then die in the next seven years, there would be no IHT for your child to pay on this gift (whereas if you had gifted it to them yourself, the ‘seven year rule’ would mean that they had some IHT to pay).

You can learn more about Inheritance Tax and other ways to reduce this tax in our articles Understanding Inheritance Tax and Six ways to reduce inheritance tax bills.

What happens if someone dies without leaving a will?

If someone dies without leaving a will, then the person is said to have died “intestate”, and their estate is passed on to members of their family according to the intestacy rules of whichever part of the UK they lived in.

You may still be able to use a deed of variation if someone dies without a will provided all of the people who would inherit under the intestacy rules agree to it. Read more about how intestacy works in our article Sorting out an estate when someone dies without a will.

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