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Putting a ‘common tragedy clause’ in your Will – not just for the wealthy

Planning for what might seem the unlikeliest of scenarios in your Will is vital to ensure you stay in control of who inherits your estate – as the recent tragic death of millionaire businessman Richard Cousins shows.

Mr Cousins died when a seaplane, which belonged to a firm running sightseeing tours near Sydney, Australia, crashed into a river on New Year’s Eve 2017. His fiancée, her daughter and his two sons were also killed.

His Will left the majority of his £40 million-plus fortune in trust to his sons but he had also recently added a ‘common tragedy clause’ (sometimes known as a ‘default clause’, ‘long stop provision’ or ‘catch-all provision’) meaning that if he and his family were to die at the same time or within close proximity of his death, his fortune would go largely to charity.

Chosen charity Oxfam

As a result, the principle beneficiary of his estate was his chosen charity Oxfam with his two brothers also receiving £1 million each.

Without this clause coming into play, Mr Cousins’ estate would have been distributed in accordance with Intestacy rules meaning it would have been shared out among his nearest surviving relatives, even if they were unknown or estranged from him and possibly even including someone he did not want to inherit any of his assets.


Obviously, none of us like to think of our whole family dying at the same time or in close proximity to us but it isn’t unheard of – actress Carrie Fisher died a day before her mother Debbie Reynolds and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s son died a week after she did.

So adding a ‘common tragedy’ clause to your Will to cover such, an albeit, rare eventuality is something all solicitors should advise you to do.

Of course, there may be other members of your wider family you would like to inherit your estate, but if not, many people choose a charity that is important to them knowing that legacies are a vital source of income for many.

Talk to your family

Discussing death and demise with loved ones is never easy – but a full and frank conversation with family about what you want combined with specialist legal advice can help avoid confusion and upset further down the line.

You do not need to be wealthy to have a ‘common tragedy clause’ in your Will. It can provide assurance and peace of mind that there is an alternative, chosen beneficiary, usually a charity, if tragedy does strike.

In addition, gifts to charity are free of Inheritance tax and in appropriate cases, can reduce the rate of IHT on that part of the estate which will bear tax.

It’s also a good idea to:

  • Make sure your family know of your plans to avoid any surprise later;
  • Let your chosen charity know if you wish the legacy to be used to support a particular campaign.

For advice on making or updating a Will, please contact our Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity Team.

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