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 can also apply where someone has made a will, but their will fails to specify how an estate should be distributed in particular circumstances. 

This case illustrates the potential problem and how it can be avoided.

In December 2017 multi-millionaire catering tycoon Richard Cousins died in a plane crash along with 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 when no beneficiaries survive.

It has been widely reported in the media that Mr Cousins' will left his estate, totaling 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 estate will often be distributed in accordance with the intestacy rules, usually passing to the first surviving relatives - whether that was the testator’s wish or not.

In this case the intestacy rules were avoided. Shortly before his death, Mr Cousins amended his will and included 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 this 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.

While 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 common tradegy clauses, intestacy rules in the UK or making an inheritance claim then please call our Free Legal helpline on 0808 139 1599 or send an email to us at info@inheritancedisputes.co.uk