The Digitalisation of War Wills
5 November 2014 by Susanne Grimwade
On the 11th November 2014, the world will commemorate a significant day in our history – 100 years since the start of World War One.
In 1919, King George V dedicated the second Sunday in November to members of the armed forces who lost their lives during the war. Every year since that day, we have paid our respects to those men and women in our own way, whether that is in St Pauls Cathedral or by a small location of sentimental value.
But what happened to the belongings and savings of those who did not come home? Well, it is understood that many soldiers carried their last will and testament with them, often in their paybooks. Unfortunately, a large majority of these paybooks (and wills in general) have been lost during the pandemonium of war. Consequently, their final wishes were never heard.
However, there are around 270,000 recovered wills which spend their days safely nestled inside a temperature-controlled warehouse in Birmingham. These records are currently being digitalised as part of a government project and are now available online. This project is designed to give people greater access to their family history and uncover the voice of a relative they have never heard. The project will be followed up by the digitalisation of all war wills, dating from the Boer war to the Falklands.
But what about today’s soldiers? To start, their wills are very different from those in World War One; nowadays they are digital and completed pre-tour. Meaning they no longer jot down their final wishes on fragile paper, and keep it with them during battle, instead it is all completed digitally.
Military wills differ significantly from civilian wills as they only apply whilst the owner is on active duty, therefore having no validity between military operations. Also before a tour of duty in a war zone, every serviceman is asked to name, in order of priority, two next of kin to be informed if they are killed during their tour. In addition, each serviceman is requested to write a will which is placed in a sealed envelope with their funeral wishes and choice of personal photographs to be released in the event of death.
The receipt of the will envelope is then logged by administrators at the serviceman’s unit, before being sent by them to the Service Personnel and Veterans’ Agency’s Document Handling Centre in Glasgow. From this point on, the centre is responsible for releasing the soldiers’ will, should they pass away whilst on active duty.
Unfortunately, trouble can arise should anything happen to a soldier whilst not on active duty, if they do not have a civilian will. Without a civilian will, their assets will be shared out in a standard defined by the law and inheritance tax on money or property left behind may be high. But most importantly, family members and friends who depend on you may not receive the financial support you could otherwise have left for them.