Intestacy rules UK: The common tragedy clause

In this intestacy rules UK update we take a look at how to avoid intestacy by using a 'common tragedy clause'.

People tend to think that the intestacy rules only apply where someone has not made a will. However, that is not correct. The intestacy rules also apply where someone has made a will, but their will fails to specify how an estate should be distributed in particular circumstances. 

At the end of December 2017 multi-millionaire catering tycoon Richard Cousins died in a plane crash alongside his two sons, his fiancé and her daughter. The family, who had previously been struck by tragedy when Mr Cousins lost his wife in 2015, all passed away together, raising questions about what happens to inheritance when no beneficiaries survive.

It has been widely reported in the media that Mr Cousins' will left his estate, totalling in excess of forty million, to his two sons. However they did not survive their father so were unable to inherit. Generally, when a gift in a will 'fails' it will pass into the residue of the estate and go to the residuary beneficiaries. When the residuary beneficiaries do not survive the testator the estate will often be distributed in accordance with the terms of the intestacy rules, usually passing to the first surviving relatives - whether that is the testator’s wish or not.

In this case the intestacy rules were avoided. Shortly before his death, Mr Cousins amended his Will to include a “common tragedy clause”. This is a clause which takes effect if all the members of an immediate family pass away together. It is in effect a survivorship clause governing what should happen to the estate if all the chosen beneficiaries do not survive the testator. Mr Cousins made use of such a clause to make minor gifts to each of his brothers before passing the bulk of the estate to the charity Oxfam. The legacy amounts to just over double the value of the combined gifts Oxfam received through Wills in the previous year.

Whilst survivorship clauses are regularly used in wills they cannot cater for every eventuality. Situations can still arise where it is unclear who should benefit from the estate and it can make an already difficult time worse when it appears that the testator’s wishes cannot be followed. Common tragedy clauses may well become more common in light of the media coverage of the Cousins family tragedy, but it is likely to take some time.

For information about intestacy rules UK and making an inheritance claim then please call our Free Legal helpline on 0808 139 1599 or send an email to us at