survivorship clauses can cause confusion and unintended consequences if not properly drafted

When survivorship clauses can cause confusion!

Sometimes, the problems that arise from a will aren’t about whether the person who made the will had the capacity to do so, or whether they were unduly influenced by someone else. Sometimes, the problems come from the way the will was drafted – and even properly drafted wills can cause problems in some circumstances. This happened in the case of Jump & Jones v Lister [2016] EWHC 2160 where the survivorship clauses in mirror wills caused problems when husband and wife died at the same time.

The facts in Jump & Jones v Lister

Mr and Mrs Winson, the uncle and aunt of the claimants in this case, were both found dead at their home. It was impossible to tell who had died first. They had left mirror wills which left everything to each other, but if that gift failed (because one of them had already died), then the wills

  • Made provision for the disposal of their personal property
  • Left legacies to the same named individuals and charities, amounting in total to £214,500
  • Left the residue to their nieces – the claimants.

Mr Winson was the younger of the deceased couple so the court applied the rule in section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, and presumed that he died after his wife. Mrs Winson’s will included a ‘survivorship clause’ which required any person to survive her by 28 days in order to inherit under her will. As a result, it was decided that

  • There was no ambiguity in the survivorship clause and no attempt to clarify that Mr Winson would be excluded from the survivorship clause
  • The rule of ‘commorientes’ in the Law of Property Act 1925 meant that Mr Winson was presumed to have died after Mrs Winson, but nevertheless, he had not survived for 28 days after his wife’s death
  • The legacies were therefore paid out twice – once under Mrs Winson’s will, and then under Mr Winson’s will.

Survivorship clauses

Survivorship clauses are common in wills. As in this case, they will usually require the beneficiaries under a will to survive for a specific ‘survivorship’ period after the testator (the person who made the will) has died. If the beneficiary does die before the end of the period, he or she is treated as having predeceased the testator, so the inheritance is distributed accordingly. Including a survivorship clause in your will means you can avoid the situation where assets go through probate more than once in a relatively short space of time.  It also allows you to maintain a degree of control over how your estate is distributed onwards after your death. If your property passes to someone who then also dies quickly afterwards, your property is then essentially distributed onwards according to that beneficiary’s will (or their intestacy).

Obviously, survivorship clauses cannot prevent assets eventually being dispersed onwards, but they can restrict onward distribution in the initial period following a testator’s death. The problem in this case was that because the couple died at the same time, and certainly within 28 days of each other, the survivorship clause was not satisfied. Mrs Winson was deemed to die first, and because her husband did not survive her by 28 days, he was treated as having died before her. This meant that the clauses relating to personal property, the gifts to individuals and charities all applied. Then, when dealing with Mr Winson’s will, the same situation arose – although this time because Mrs Winson had actually pre-deceased her husband (at least for these purposes). The result was a double inheritance for the individuals and charities in receipt of specific legacies.

The legal case here was brought by the nieces/executrices who argued that this was the case – and the pecuniary legacies should, on the proper construction of the will, be paid twice. The defendant solicitors, who had drafted the wills, argued that the survivorship clause should not have applied, with the result that the pecuniary legacies should only have been paid once.

Take care drafting your wills!

Although here at Willclaim Solicitors we do not draft wills, we often see the results of poor drafting, or the fall out from when a will has been drafted without proper care to what is going on at the time. The consequences of a will dispute can be long lasting, so we would always advise taking proper legal advice when drafting your will to avoid heartache for your family, friends and other beneficiaries. If you find that you are concerned about the contents of a will – either because of how it has been drafted, or because you think something untoward has happened in the preparation of the will, get in touch. We are experts in will disputes and will be able to advise you on your position.