It is common for couples to make mirror Wills where they leave everything to each other and, eventually, to their children, but what happens when one spouse dies and the surviving spouse changes their Will so the children only receive part of the estate? The High Court has shown that mirror Wills can be seen as effectively unchangeable depending on the promises that are made at the time of making and signing the Wills.
In the recent case of Legg and Another v Burton and Others, the husband and wife had signed mirror Wills in 2000 which provided that the survivor would inherit the other’s estate and that, when both of them were deceased, everything would go to their daughters. Following the husband’s death, the wife made more than a dozen further Wills before her own death 16 years later. These Wills revoked her original mirror Will. The last Will had a pecuniary gift of 40,000 to her daughters. The remainder of the wife’s estate which was worth 213,000 was left to other beneficiaries.
During this case there was no dispute that the wife had the mental capacity required to make a valid Will. However, her daughters argued that, by changing her Will, she had broken a binding commitment that she had made to her husband before his death. Both daughters had been present when the mirror Wills were signed and had been assured by both their parents that their terms were ‘set in stone’ and would not be changed in the future.
In upholding the daughters’ arguments, the High Court accepted their evidence as to the mutual promise that their parents had made to each other and to them. There was no doubt that both of them intended at the time that their Wills would not be changed. On her husband’s death, therefore, the wife lost the unilateral right to dispose of her estate as she pleased. In the circumstances, the Court ruled that her personal representatives held her estate on trust to give effect to the mirror Wills. This is an interesting case because in general, whereas mutual Wills can be binding on the survivor, mirror Wills are not usually binding.
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