The Express newspaper recently highlighted the turmoil that can ensue when families are locked in a row over inheritance (see article).
The story centred around the entitlement of ‘Lord’ Brett McLean to the £300,000 home left to him by his mother, Maureen. Reports say that in 2017, Maureen and her husband Reginald (who had three children by his previous wife, before Brett was born to him and Maureen) made Mirror Wills, specifying that all four children would share the house and the rest of their joint estate equally after the parents had passed away. When Reginald died, everything transferred to Maureen, but shortly before her death, Maureen changed her Will, cutting out her stepchildren and leaving everything to her only biological son, Brett.
The judge found that Maureen had been entitled to do this. She may have been morally bound not to change her Will, but she wasn’t legally bound not to.
The case demonstrates one of the potential problems with Mirror Wills: there may be nothing to stop a surviving partner from diverting inheritance away from certain family members when their partner is no longer around to have their say.
But what are Mirror Wills? And why are they used?
As the name suggest, these are two Wills that reflect each other. Their terms are virtually the same, and so they’re most often used by couples that have the same wishes when it comes to who should inherit their assets. They’re relatively simple to put in place and one of their major benefits is that they can help reduce the amount of inheritance tax that may ultimately be payable. Assets can be transferred tax-free between married couples and between civil partners. The surviving partner will also inherit their partner’s inheritance tax allowance, and when the surviving partner dies, their allowance can be added on. This could give the couple’s children (the next in line to benefit) their parents’ combined tax allowance.
Mirror Wills can be extremely beneficial, but they carry one significant risk: the relative ease with which they may be changed, either during both partners’ lifetime, or after one has passed away. If the surviving partner goes on to form a new relationship, he or she may decide to make their new partner the beneficiary to assets originally intended for children of the first relationship; or they may decide to change their Will to disinherit other family members – stepchildren, for example.
People don’t enter into Mirror Wills thinking this might happen. The couples we advise believe wholeheartedly that they’re on the same page, that things won’t change and the wishes they’ve agreed on will be carried through. For families dealing with the aftermath of a situation that has panned out differently, things can get incredibly complicated and sometimes relationships become damaged beyond repair.
One way of potentially avoiding this problem is by creating Mutual Wills. These are also virtually identical to each other but they’re a lot more difficult to alter. The parties agree not to change the Will without the other’s consent. And when one of them dies, the Will can’t be changed at all – even if the surviving partner goes on to remarry.
Understanding your options, and putting the right measures in place, are key to having peace of mind that you’ve done everything you can to ensure your wishes are carried through. Complete certainty may be elusive when it comes to Wills, but there are certainly ways of getting as close to that as possible.