Intestacy: The statutory legacy increases – what does this mean?

28 January 2020

The UK government has confirmed that the amount a surviving spouse or civil partner is entitled to receive in England and Wales where a person dies intestate (without a valid will) and leaving children will be increased. 

The statutory legacy will be increased by £20,000 from £250,000 to £270,000. The changes will come into force on 6 February 2020.

What happens on intestacy?

Under the rules of intestacy, the estate of the deceased is distributed in a particular way depending on who survives, how they are related to the deceased and how many individuals there are. 

The rules are complicated and in general there is a “pecking order” of who inherits: spouse, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles. The rules tend not to take into account modern relationships and make no provisions for cohabitees, step-children, or close friends. 

Three examples of what can happen in an intestacy situation are:  

Jack and Jill (married) 

Jack and Jill are married. Jack dies without a will and leaves an estate of £2,000,000. 

What happens?
Since there are no children, Jill (the spouse) will inherit the whole estate ie £2,000,000. Due to the spouse exemption, no inheritance tax will be payable. 


Jack and Jill (unmarried)

Jack and Jill have been cohabiting for a number of years but are not married. Jack always said he would leave his estate to Jill, but he dies without a will. His estate is worth £2,000,000. 

What happens?
Jill would not be entitled to anything! If Jack’s parents were still alive, they would inherit the estate (equal distribution if both were alive), and if not, the estate would be distributed between Jack’s brothers and sisters. 


Jack and Jill and their son John 

Jack and Jill are married. They have one son, John. Jack dies without a will and leaves an estate of £2,000,000.

What happens?
The spouse would be entitled to all of the deceased’s personal property, the first £270,000 of the estate, and 50% per cent of the remainder (leaving 50% to be divided equally between the children).

In this particular situation, the spouse exemption cannot be applied on the entirety of the estate because it is not all being left to Jill. After the application of the nil rate tax free allowance of £325,000 which Jack is entitled to, and on the basis that no other exemptions or nil rate bands could be used, inheritance tax of £670,000 would be due on the estate. 

This would mean that Jill would end up with £800,000 and John would end up with £530,000. If the estate included a property, the property may need to be sold. 

The way the intestacy rules work mean that in this situation inheritance tax was payable on Jack’s death, which is something which could have been delayed if Jack had made a will. 

If Jack and Jill had been unmarried, then John would inherit the entire estate (subject to inheritance tax). The only way that Jill would have benefited would be to consider a claim against the estate for reasonable provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. 


Why not to rely on the intestacy rules… 

Whilst the increase in the fixed statutory legacy is welcomed, this should not stop you from making a will and/or reviewing your current will regularly. 

As you can see from the examples above, the intestacy provisions do provide for family but this may not be in the way you intend and may result in inheritance tax being paid, claims against the estate and disgruntled beneficiaries. 

In addition to placing additional stress on your loved ones at a time of grief, relying on the intestacy rules may mean that those who you wish to benefit on your death will not do so in the way you intend (ie unmarried couples or friends) and it may even mean that those who you may not necessarily want to benefit will do so (for example, estranged siblings or parents). 

The best way of combating the intestacy provisions is by making a will and choosing who you want to benefit and how. 

Further information

For further information on the issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our private client team.

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