Bruce Forsyth reportedly leaves everything to his wife to avoid Inheritance Tax and trusting that she will then distribute assets to his children and grandchildren

The trouble with Bruce Forsyth’s Will

The recent passing of Bruce Forsyth, legend of the British entertainment industry, might not be something you would expect to see on a blog about will disputes. He’s left an enormous fortune and has many children and grandchildren – but he has also left a will – so what’s the problem?

What has caught our attention as contentious probate specialists is the suggestion that Mr Forsyth’s will leaves everything to his wife. Not so unusual you might think – but that’s not the end of it. Apparently, in a bid to avoid Inheritance Tax, Bruce Forsyth has left his estate to his wife on the understanding that she then makes use of her own ability to make tax free gifts to ensure that his children from 3 marriages, grandchildren and great grandchildren receive their shares of his fortune.

This is a very risky strategy to take. Assuming that this is the case, and Mr Forsyth has indeed entrusted his wife of 34 years to ‘do the right thing’, there are a number of potential issues that arise from this.

Inheritance tax Issues and ‘doing the right thing’

While it’s true that anything Mrs Forsyth gives away during her lifetime will not incur tax at the time, any gifts made within the 7 years of her death will be included in any Inheritance Tax calculation. She will benefit from her husband’s nil rate band giving a total of £650,000 that will be free of Inheritance Tax. This seems a huge amount – but measured against an estate estimated at some £17 million, the gifts that £650,000 could generate start to seem rather small. Mrs Forsyth is only 59 and unlikely to be anticipating her death any time soon – but it is always a possibility, so she may well limit her gifts so that they fall within this £650,000 limit.

The report we linked to above suggests that Mrs Forsyth will give away up to £650,000 – which seems likely to be linked to the nil rate band we’ve just mentioned. There is a big difference between £17 million and £650,000, especially when the £650,000 is apparently to be divided between 18 (6 children, 9 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren).

We have no idea of the details of any distribution Mr Forsyth gave his wife, but it seems distinctly possible that if Mrs Forsyth limits her gifts to a total of £650,000 (and possibly less to account for any other gifts she might make to others) it could give rise to a claim by one or more of his children, grandchildren or great grandchildren seeking a greater piece of the estate.

A possible will validity claim

If some of Mr Forsyth’s family are unhappy with the arrangement, they might seek to challenge the validity of the will, perhaps on the grounds that he was the victim of undue influence. They would need to show that the will does not reflect Mr Forsyth’s true intentions, and that this is due to the behaviour of another person. It could be argued that Mr Forsyth’s true intentions were that his entire family should benefit under his will – indeed, the suggestion that he acted in that way that he did supports that argument. He had no desire to disinherit his children, he just wished to avoid Inheritance Tax. Could it be said that his will did not reflect his true intention because of the behaviour of another person – someone convincing him that he should leave everything to his wife?

Proving undue influence, while not impossible, can certainly be an uphill struggle. In this case, a person accused of exercising undue influence would almost certainly argue that it was the desire to avoid inheritance tax which prompted Mr Forsyth to draw up his will the way that he did.

An Inheritance Act claim

The Inheritance Act (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows dependants of the deceased – spouse, children, grandchildren, others being maintained by the deceased – to claim a share of the estate (or a greater share of the estate). Adult children are eligible to bring a claim for ‘maintenance’ under the Act. However, following the case of Ilott v Blue Cross and others in the Supreme Court earlier this year, the extent of what ‘maintenance’ amounts to has been reset. It is not unrealistic that we might see a claim for maintenance given the size of the estate – but it will very much depend on the facts of the individual claiming maintenance.

It may well be that Mrs Forsyth and the family will be able to settle matters between them – it may even be that Mr Forsyth’s will is not drafted in the terms reported in the article. However, it’s a useful opportunity to highlight the sort of situation that can often lead to a will dispute and cause a great deal of upset for families following the death of a loved one. As contentious probate experts, we would always advise people to seek specialist legal advice when drawing up a will.

Should you find yourself disappointed by a will or concerned about the way a will was drawn up, we can help. Get in touch to find out more about our legal services and the help we can give you to challenge a will.