First-time will writers 'leave more to charity if told others do'

Research by the Behavioural Insights Team and Bristol University found that this prompt led to a 40 per cent increase in the number of first-time testators leaving gifts to charity in their wills

Will-writing: under scrutiny
Will-writing: under scrutiny

Telling will-writers that other people leave money to charity in their wills is a good way of encouraging them to leave their own legacy gifts – but only if they are first-time will-writers, researchers have found.

The two-year study, which was carried out by the Behavioural Insights Team  and the University of Bristol, and which will be launched by the legacy consortium Remember A Charity in London today, is claimed to be the first of its kind. It explored how solicitors could best make their clients aware in a face-to-face setting that they could leave gifts to charity in their wills.

The report, Legacy Giving and Behavioural Insights, says researchers found that normalising charitable legacies by communicating that this was something others did was the approach most likely to encourage people to leave legacies, leading to a 40 per cent increase in the number of first-time testators choosing to include charities in their wills, compared with a control group.

But the researchers also found that this approach might be counter-productive for those who were not writing their first will: the social-norm prompt led to a 38 per cent fall in legacy pledges compared with a control group among people who were revising their wills.

"The social-norms intervention is particularly effective for participants who are receiving a free will or who are writing a will for the first time, increasing donation rates by 40 per cent," says the report. "This is consistent with the hypothesis that social norms are useful to clients who are perhaps less experienced in the will-writing process."

The study found that people without children were more likely to leave legacies if told that the gifts were an opportunity to support charities that their families cared about or had benefited from. People with children were also found to be more likely to leave gifts if told this, but the results here were more tentative.

Within the study, posthumous benefit framing – where solicitors focus on the good work that charities could do with the money after the person has gone – was not found to be as effective as other types of nudge.

According to the report, this approach could reduce the likelihood of someone giving when compared with social-norm messaging or emotional framing (where will-writers are prompted to think of causes they feel passionate about).

Michael Sanders, chief scientist and head of research, evaluation and social action at the Behavioural Insights Team, said: "We already know that mentioning legacy giving as part of the will-writing process can have a significant impact on giving levels, but the evidence from these new trials indicates that specific language used in conversations can make a real difference to the way that people respond in a face-to-face setting."

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