What is a Bequest?

A comprehensive guide to making bequests in Wills

Last updated: 17 July 2019

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This article provides some helpful advice and guidelines, but should not be considered legal advice.

A bequest is a gift left by someone in their Will to a relative, friend or organisation. There are several different types of bequest that you need to know if you are writing a Will. It might seem daunting, but reading this guide can help you prepare for making bequests when you write a Will, and distributing them if you are the executor of an estate.

The information in this guide refers to writing a Will in England and Wales; some aspects of it might differ from Scottish Law. There is a reciprocal agreement that means any Will made in England or Wales and Scotland is valid in the other jurisdiction, if it is reviewed by a solicitor practising in the country in which it was written.

What is a bequest?

The meaning of a ‘Bequest’ is a gift of money or personal property that a person who has died leaves to a specific individual or organisation in their Will.

Bequests cover all items, called assets, owned by the person who has made the Will, including money, personal property (for example cars or jewellery) and real property (houses or land). Horses and ponies are also classified as assets because of their financial value.

If someone leaves real property, such as a house, in their Will, the legal term is ‘devise,’ but this is now also commonly called a bequest. Gifts of money or personal property are sometimes described as legacies to distinguish them from devises. This article always refers to bequests.

What are the different types of bequest?

There are five broad types of bequest that you can make in your Will:

1. A specific bequest is a gift of personal property, including stocks or shares, to a specific recipient.

Example

I leave all my jewellery to my daughter and my piano to my sister.

2. A general bequest is a gift of a particular sum of money to a designated recipient. This is also sometimes called a pecuniary bequest.

General bequests can also be left to organisations, such as an animal sanctuary or political party. In this instance they are often described as charitable bequests.

Making a charitable bequest can reduce the amount of inheritance tax payable by an estate.

Example

I leave £10,000 to my brother and £5,000 to the animal sanctuary.

3. A demonstrative bequest is a gift of money that is to be paid from the proceeds of the future sale of a particular item, including stocks and shares.

Example

I leave the proceeds from the sale of all my shares to my husband.

4. A reversionary bequest is a gift that states who the property should be left to if the original recipient dies before the person who has made the Will.

Example: I leave my house to my brother, but if he predeceases me I leave it to my niece.

5. A residual bequest is the value of the remainder of the estate after all other bequests are made; it is usually inherited by the person closest to the person who has made the Will, such as their spouse, child or sibling.

Example

I leave my estate to my wife.

Bequests can also be multiple types; a residual bequest can also be reversionary.

Example

I leave my estate to my wife, but if she predeceases me I leave half of it to my brother and half to my nephew.

What conditions can be applied to bequests?

Bequests can be absolute or conditional. An absolute bequest is a gift that should be distributed to the recipient of it as soon as possible.

A conditional bequest is dependent on the recipient meeting criteria specified in the Will, such as getting married, having children, or using the money for education.

Absolute or conditional bequests can be left to beneficiaries in a trust fund overseen by trustees.

Example

Sue writes a Will:

I leave £10,000 in a trust fund for both of my grandsons, from which they can each withdraw £5,000 on their 18th birthdays (absolute bequest).

I leave £5,000 in a trust fund for them to access when they leave school, on condition that they go to university. If they do not, the trustees can only transfer the money to them after her grandsons’ 25th birthdays (conditional bequests).

When can bequests be invalid?

Specific bequests can become invalid, or ‘fail’, in several different circumstances.

If the asset is no longer part of the estate the intended recipient will not receive the gift and is not entitled to any compensation unless the testator specifically provides for this eventuality in the Will.

Bequests can also fail if the intended recipient of it dies before the person who has made the Will can change it. In this instance specific and general bequests are disbursed to the residual recipients.

If the residual recipient dies before the person who made the Will the residual bequest is distributed as if the person who made the Will died intestate.

Example

Joe writes a Will:

I leave £50,000 and my 1961 Jaguar E-Type to my daughter* (specific bequests).

I leave £20,000 to my brother and £5,000 to the animal sanctuary (general bequests).

I leave the remainder of my estate to my wife (residuary bequests).

Joe sells his Jaguar to his brother who also predeceased him, but Joe does not change his Will before his own death. His daughter still receives the £50,000, but is not entitled to any compensation from the residuary estate.

The £20,000 Joe bequeathed to his brother is added to the residuary estate and goes to his wife.

Distributing bequests

Bequests are distributed by the executor of the Will after the grant of probate or letters of administration.

If you are the executor of a Will with particularly complex bequests you might want to consider instructing a probate solicitor to distribute it.

If somebody disagrees with any bequest they can contest a Will within 6 months of the grant of probate.