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Wills and bequests explained

Harvey Jones / 30 March 2020

We look at the different kinds of bequests you can include in your Will, and how to protect your loved ones from future disputes.

You need to keep your Will up-to-date to ensure your belongings are given to the correct recipient.
You need to keep your Will up-to-date to ensure your belongings are given to the correct recipient.

What is a bequest?

A bequest is a gift that you leave in your Will, say, to a family member, friend, or an organisation such as charity or political party.

It could pretty much anything, including cash, shares, bonds and property, as well as sentimental items such as your wedding ring or jewellery, antiques or paintings, and so on.

There are several different types of bequest, and it may be worth knowing the difference before you make one.

Typically, you will draw up bequests when writing your Will, but it is important to make your wishes absolutely clear, to prevent disputes later.

In some cases bequests can become invalid, and open to challenge by people who expected to get more generous provision.

While you can draw up a DIY Will for just a few pounds, mistakes could cost your loved ones dear. Nobody wants their final legacy to be a nasty family dispute, so be clear in your bequests.

The different types of bequests

The different types of bequests are:

Specific bequest

This is a gift you make of a particular item or sum of money, which is given to a specified recipient.

For example: “I leave my jewellery to my daughter, the grand piano to my son, and £5,000 to my sister.”

General bequest

Sometimes called a pecuniary bequest, this involves giving us sum of money to a specific recipient.

For example: “I leave £1,000 to my grandchildren Jack and Olivia.”

Residual bequest

This wraps up the remaining value of your estate, after all the other bequests have been made, and any debts and tax demands settled. Typically, it will be made to a spouse or partner, or children.

For example: "I leave the remainder of my estate to my wife."

Demonstrative bequest

You can also give a gift of money that is to be paid when a specific item is sold.

Example: “I leave my best friend Barry the proceeds from the sale of my Harley-Davidson."

Conditional bequest

Most of these are “absolute" bequests, because the recipient is intended to benefit as soon as possible.

With a conditional bequest, the beneficiary must meet certain conditions before they receive the assets, for example, getting married, having children, going to university, and so on.

Example: "I leave our daughter £20,000, providing she uses the money for a property deposit, and the family car to our son, provided he has passed his driving test by then."

Reversionary bequest

This sets out who is next in line to get the gift, if the beneficiary you originally proposed dies before you do.

Example: "I leave my mother’s wedding ring to my sister, but if she predeceases me, I leave it to her daughter.”

Charitable bequest

You can also donate money or assets to a charity, political party or any other organisation, and there maybe inheritance tax (IHT) benefits in doing so.

If your estate is liable to pay IHT, this could reduce the bill, as your charitable bequest will not count towards the total taxable value of your estate.

If you leave at least 10% of your "net estate" to charity, the IHT tax rate on your remaining assets will fall from 40% to 36%.

Example: "I leave £2,000 to my local cancer hospice.”

Combined bequests

You can combine multiple bequests, say, specific bequests, with a residual bequest.

Example: "I give £1,000 to each of my children, £500 to the local donkey sanctuary, and the remainder of my estate to my wife.”

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Make your wishes clear

If somebody disagrees with any bequest, they can contest your Will within six months of grant of probate.

Say your mother promised to leave you her wedding ring, and included the bequest in her Will. However, on her death, you discover she had actually given the ring to your sister’s daughter as a 21st birthday present several years earlier.

In this case, you have no legal right to compensation for not receiving the ring. If a specific bequest is made of an item that the deceased no longer owned, it does not count as part of their estate, and is simply ignored in a process known as “ademption”.

This is why it is so important for everyone to keep their Will and bequests up-to-date. You should also be as open as possible with family members, to prevent nasty shocks or misunderstandings, which can stir up feelings.

This may be particularly important if you favour one family member, say, if one of your siblings will inherit more than the other.

Danger of dispute

Family members, dependants and friends could challenge your Will by claiming you were not in a fit state of mind, or were under undue influence from another beneficiary. To reduce the danger, make sure your solicitor keeps a paper trail of how your Will was drawn up and executed.

You might also consider meeting your solicitor on your own, with no other friends or family member present, to prevent claims of coercion.

Those with a history of mental illness might want to ask their GP to write a "capacity report", stating you are fit like to write your Will.

Suspected fraud or forgery may also trigger a challenge. Make sure yours has been properly signed and witnessed.

If you make a controversial or painful decision, such as excluding a close family member, you should ideally back this up with a clear explanation, which your solicitor should note down. Consider including a "letter of wishes” in your file, explaining any decisions, but avoid making personal attacks, as the court may look unfavourably on these in a dispute.

It may be better to leave that person at least something in your Will, to deter future claims, and maintain peace in the family.

A financial dependant may also be able to challenge your Will if you have not left them any provision. Typically, this will be spouses or civil partners, as well as children, or anyone who can prove they were being supported by you.

Many people wrongly assume that if you divorce, your Will is automatically revoked, but this isn't the case. It remains valid, although your ex-partner is treated as if they had died for inheritance purposes.

If you do not update your Will to reflect your divorce or separation, it could be declared invalid, at which point the rules of intestacy could apply. If this happens, your money will be distributed according to a set formula, rather than your personal wishes, and new partners or dependents could end up losing out.

Writing a new Will can help prevent claims against your estate under the Inheritance Act, say, by an ex-spouse claiming financial provision.

Distributing your bequests

Your executor will be responsible for distributing your bequests, after probate has been granted. If your affairs are particularly complex, it may be wise to instruct a probate solicitor to do the work on their behalf.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.