The dangers of writing a basic will and then simply assuming everything will be taken care of have been highlighted by the traumatic experience of a man who’s been left with nothing.
Stuart Herd, 66, had expected to be the beneficiary of his father’s estate on the death of his stepmother – only to find, after she died, that she had changed her will and arranged to leave everything to her own family.
Mr Herd’s father and stepmother each had one son. They had written mirror wills which, as the name suggests, mirror each other and come into force in the order in which the benefactors die.
“When I visited my father in hospital just before he died, he explained that his main concern was to ensure my stepmother was well provided for during her lifetime before the family inheritance passed down to me,” Mr Herd said.
“My father and stepmother had been to a firm of solicitors regulated by the Law Society, and mirror wills had been prepared. The estate first passed to the surviving spouse, and then to my stepbrother and me in equal shares. But after my father died in 1997, my stepmother changed her will in favour of my stepbrother, his wife and their two adult children.”
Mr Herd, who lives in Essex, said he found out about this “cruel act of betrayal” only after she died in 2012.
“It has been over five years now and I still cannot begin to come to terms with why my stepmother betrayed my late father,” he said.
“Despite my father being very clear in his dying wishes, my family inheritance of about £150,000, which had been built up over a number of generations of hard work, ended up with a family who had contributed absolutely nothing and who have now taken everything.”
Mr Herd – who said he could not afford to go to court to fight the case – wrote to his stepfamily and begged them to respect his father’s wishes, but they refused to respect the original will.
“What I can’t come to terms with is knowing how hard it was for my parents and grandparents to build up that inheritance and the ease with which it was diverted to my stepfamily,” he said.
“If it had not been for my father’s desire to look after my stepmother during her lifetime, the Herd family inheritance would continue to pass down the family line as it had done in the past.
“But even knowing this, my stepfamily felt unable to respect those dying wishes.”
Laura Rumsey, a solicitor with Rogers & Norton, said Mr Herd’s case highlighted a key potential problem with mirror wills.
“As many people have second or blended families, they may need to take legal advice as to how best to provide for their spouse and their own children from a previous relationship,” she said.
“It is understandable that you will want to provide for your spouse for their lifetime and then provide for children upon the second death. Many people simply prepare mirror wills and trust that the surviving spouse will leave their estate equally between their own children and their stepchildren.
“Mr Herd’s case highlights the problem with mirror wills. The surviving spouse can change their will at any point before or after the death of the first and can then choose to simply benefit their own family.”
Ms Rumsey said there were ways around this potential problem.
“One of the best solutions to provide for both your spouse and your own children is to provide your spouse with a life interest in either your property or your entire estate,” she said.
“This means that they get to use the assets, live in the property and sustain the same standard of lifestyle as they previously had. Your spouse will be well provided for in their own lifetime, but as they do not ultimately become the legal owner of any of your property, upon their death then they cannot leave your estate under their will. Instead, when they die, your estate will revert to your own children.”
Mr Herd, who has one daughter, said: “The greatest impact is that I would have loved to have been in a position to use part of my intended legacy to provide a deposit for her first property.
“As it is, she is in rented property as she cannot afford the deposit, and it’s only when we pass on that she will be in a position to purchase her own property.”