What are mirror wills?

Hannah Jean, solicitor, discusses the potential benefits of mirror wills. 

Why opt for mirror wills?

Mirror wills, so-called because the terms of one will largely reflect that of the other, are often seen as the preferred option for the vast majority of couples. 

Mirror wills can, in theory, be created for any two people, provided they are of sound mind and over 18. However, they are usually made for people who are married, in a civil partnership, or who are otherwise in a relationship. 

Although not a prerequisite, mirror wills usually leave everything to the survivor when the first partner passes away, but allow a couple to state what they wish to happen when the survivor dies or if they die together, for example, in an accident.

In the case of married couples and those in a civil partnership, without a will, the rule known as commorientes­,­ which presumes that the younger survived the elder, does not apply. For a spouse or civil partner to inherit where there is no will, they must survive by 28 days. This could potentially result in the estates being distributed in a way that the couple may not have intended.

Providing for your partner and children

By agreeing to leave everything to the survivor in the first instance, you are ensuring that they are financially protected for the future, where they may not automatically inherit everything from you if you died intestate.

Similarly, mirror wills allow a couple to ensure that their children are provided for if something happened to both of them. While the obvious consideration may be to protect your children’s futures financially, in the case of any children under the age of 18, it is also important to consider appointing guardians in the wills. 

Guardians are responsible for looking after your children and making day-to-day decisions regarding such things as their health and education. Guardians can be different people from those named as executors and trustees, who would be responsible for looking after the assets until any children reach the required age of inheritance.

When it comes to appointing executors, trustees and guardians, ‘mirror’ doesn't have to mean identical. Each party may have their own preference for the people they would wish to appoint.

Inheritance tax planning

In the case of married couples and civil partners who are both domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, there is no inheritance tax on any assets passing between them.

Therefore, if such a couple make mirror wills leaving everything to each other, the first to die won't have used up any of their inheritance tax nil-rate band (NRB) (currently £325,000). 

This has the advantage that when the survivor passes away, they have not only their NRB, but also that of the first to die, giving them up to £650,000 before inheritance tax would be payable.

For qualifying couples, an additional property nil-rate band is being introduced from April 2017 of £100,000 per person. This will give a total possible combined nil-rate band of £850,000.

Freedom to change your will

In England and Wales, we enjoy the freedom to leave our estate to whoever we wish, subject to certain checks and balances. This is known as freedom of testamentary disposition. 

With this freedom, it's important for a couple to review their wills and make updates when needed.

Over time, circumstances may change such as executors, guardians or beneficiaries passing away, children becoming adults, or the arrival of grandchildren.

While each person is free to change their will at any time, in the case of mirror wills, it is important to consider if both wills ought to be updated together, while ensuring that each person is free from what could be considered to be undue influence. 

An element of trust is required, as the survivor is free to change their will after the first partner has passed away.

It is important to note that mirror wills are very different to mutual wills. Mutual wills are where two (or possibly more) people prepare wills on the agreement that they will not be revoked. In the case of a couple making mutual wills, this has the effect that after the first of them passes away, the survivor is usually unable to change their will, and any attempt to do so would be ineffective.

About the author

Hannah Jean is a solicitor in the tax, trusts and estates team at Hugh James@HughJamesLegal.