A will is a "living legal document"

Many people are aware of the most obvious benefits of writing a will, such as the fact that they offer protection for loved ones in the event of death.

Under intestacy rules, property is distributed according to a complex law preferring spouses first and then children, but anyone who wants an unmarried partner or other loved ones to inherit needs to specify their wishes in a valid will.

However there are other advantages, some of which have been highlighted in New South Wales this week.

The Australian state has held its Good Will Week, organised by the Public Trustee. Aimed at drawing attention to the need to make a will, the campaign is reminding people that the documents are important in ensuring that the desired people inherit assets.

But its main focus has been the part that wills can play in tracing family history.

People have been encouraged to make wills so that their descendents can trace genealogy, as well as being informed of the way that they can take advantage of existing legal documents to learn more about themselves.

Vice president of the Society of Australian Genealogists Martyn Killion explained that television programmes following celebrities as they uncover their histories have increased interest, but the reality can be difficult.

"A will can be an incredibly rich source of information about who was married to whom, their children, where they lived, what they owned and so on," he added.

This is a view echoed by Matthew Fidge, spokesman for DIY legal publisher Lawpack.

"Where better to find out about family relationships than in a legal form that records people's names and the relationships between them?" he asks.

And for those that take an interest in genealogy, Mr Fidge observed that a last will and testament can be an "easy-to-trace" source that can "link up a large part of a family tree".

"A will often provides a record of several generations, in just one legal form," he continued.

This week the Liverpool Echo provided guidance for those looking to make a start on tracing their family tree.

According to the paper, local and county record offices - as well as family history societies - are on hand to provide help in determining whether ancestors have made wills.

Since 1958 wills in England have been registered and collated by the Principal Probate Registry in London.

Those made before than can be more difficult to find, but this is where advice can be sought and documents registered in local courts are usually available in diocesan record offices.

So by drawing up a will, you may not only be providing for your loved ones in the event of your death, but also allowing future generations a window into their own past.

As Mr Fidge explains: "Wills are not just a piece of 'dead' history. They are a living legal document. They allow you to choose who you wish to provide and care for in the future. Is there anything more important than that?"

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Published on: October 24, 2008

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