Chattels: Distribution in accordance with Testator’s Wishes

 In Probate, Trusts

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During our lifetimes we collect many chattels such as our breakfast bowl, jewellery, cars and, perhaps, works of art, also disposing of some as they wear out or cease to be of interest.

Some items will have sentimental value and, when we die, we want specific individuals to receive particular items.  If we list such wishes in our will, this could create a very long document which would need to be revised regularly to reflect changes in what we own, as well as changes in our relationships with intended beneficiaries.  To counter the inconvenience (and cost) of re-writing wills for this reason alone, it is not unusual to gift chattels to the executor, along the following lines:

I give all my personal chattels (as defined by section 55 Administration of Estates Act 1925) not otherwise specifically disposed of by this will or any codicil thereto to my Executors and ask them (but without imposing any trust or binding obligation) to give effect to any wishes which may come to their attention as to the disposal of such chattels (whether the wishes are contained in any memorandum placed with this will or found amongst my papers or indicated by words or marks on the chattels themselves or communicated orally or expressed in any other way).

As such a gift is not a secret, or half-secret, trust – the imposition of a trust being specifically excluded – there is no requirement for the executor to be aware of the testator’s wishes for the disposition of their chattels before death.  Also, if the executor gives effect to the testator’s wishes, s.143 Inheritance Tax Act 1984 (IHTA 1984) will look through the executor and ascribe the gifts to the deceased.  The above form of wording is just one example of the many adopted by will drafters.

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This type of arrangement is relatively popular and seen as very convenient, especially with the level of informality by which the list of chattels and their destination can be revised/updated.  However, they all have a common feature – the chattels are gifted to the executor absolutely, as confirmed in Re Stirling (deceased), Union Bank of Scotland Ltd v. Stirling and others [1954] Ch.D.113 (Re Stirling).  But, is this a matter of concern?

Usually, the answer to that question will be “No”.  The named executor will normally give effect to the latest of any letters of wishes that is found, without any particular concerns other than correctly identifying both the chattel and the intended recipient. If a particular chattel cannot be found, or the named recipient cannot be identified (or has died), effect cannot be given to that particular wish.

However, is it all as straight forward as is generally believed to be the case?

Let us consider some specific aspects:

  1. The letter of wishes does not deal with all of the chattels gifted to the executor

As identified in Re Stirling, the gift is to the executor beneficially.  To the extent that items are distributed other than in accordance with the testator’s stated intention, then that is a gift by the executor personally.  If the will includes a clause similar to the above example and the testator fails to deal with all of those chattels passing to the executor, on the face of it s.143 IHTA 1984 cannot apply to those items not listed, or otherwise identified.  If, for example, the executor passes such items to the residuary legatees, the executor is making a gift of them personally for IHT purposes.  In general, this may have little consequence.  But, what if (i) any of the chattels which are not listed or otherwise identified by the testator turn out to be valuable – it is not unknown for the dusty “doorstop” to turn out to be a Ming Dynasty vase worth over £1 million – or (ii) if the executor is a company?

In (i), if challenged by HMRC the executor might argue that it is implicit from the letter of wishes that the testator “wished” that those chattels not specifically identified fell into residue.  Depending upon the circumstances, the executor might consider entering into a variation effective under s.142 IHTA 1984 dealing with the chattels in question, thus avoiding any untoward IHT (or CGT) issues.

As regards (ii), this is discussed in item 4, below.

If, unusually, the will includes provision that a beneficiary can disclaim a legacy in part (without such a specific provision, “all or nothing” applies to the disclaimer of any gift), the executor might disclaim those chattels in respect of which no wishes have been communicated to them.

Of course, it may be the testator intended the executor to retain personally those chattels which are not subject to a letter of wishes or other direction.

  1. No letter of wishes can be found

Where no letter of wishes, or other direction, can be found after the testator’s death, the gift to the executor does not fail.  However, the executor may be in a quandary as to what to do with the chattels.  If satisfied that the testator had intended to identify their wishes in respect of various items, the executor could canvass those close to the testator to try and identify what such wishes might have been.  If that elicits no, or insufficient, information, the executor might consider disclaiming the chattels (although will need to be careful that they understand the effect of such a disclaimer in the circumstances of the will/estate), or enter into a variation to re-write, or extinguish, the gift.

  1. There is a delay in commencing the administration of the estate

s.143 IHTA 1984 applies only where “the legatee transfers any of the property in accordance with (the testator’s) wish within the period of two years after the death of the testator”.  Accordingly, a delay in commencing the administration of the estate could undermine the effectiveness of the testator’s planning.

If the validity of a will is being challenged, any direction in relation to chattels might also be challenged and it may, therefore, be unwise to give effect to any declared wishes of the testator until the position is beyond doubt.  However, if those wishes are not implemented within 2 years of death there is the risk that s.143 IHTA 1984 will not apply.  If the executor complies with the testator’s wishes outside of the 2 year period, they will be making the gifts themselves and the IHT and CGT consequences apply as discussed elsewhere in this article.

  1. The executor (or one of the executors) is a company (whether or not a trust corporation)

Where the executor is an individual, they can usually deal with the chattels without any constraints (see 6, below for examples of situations where this might not be the case).  However, where a company, or other corporate entity, is the executor things are not so straight forward.

As identified in Re Stirling, where the gift is expressly stated not to create a trust the executor – the Union Bank of Scotland Ltd in that case – is absolutely and beneficially entitled to the legacy of chattels.  s.143 IHTA 1984 will still apply if the corporate executor complies with any wishes expressed by the testator.

However, the existence of a corporate executor may have other, unexpected, consequences including:

  1. The chattels, being an asset of the company, will need to be reflected in its annual accounts;
  2. Authority to comply with the wishes of the testator will need to be given by the board, either on a case by case basis or by formal delegation to, say, a manager;
  3. If the chattels are considered a “capital” item, rather than a “revenue” item, can they be distributed other than to members of the company;
  4. If the value of the chattels is significant, might specific shareholder approval, or a court order, be needed to protect the directors passing significant company assets to non-members;
  5. Where s.143 IHTA 1984 does not apply (e.g. as the testator has not expressed wishes in relation to all those items given to the executor) and the company is a “close company”, the distribution of any such items may result in the “participators” in that company having an IHT liability as HMRC will look through the company and attribute such distributions to the participators as chargeable lifetime transfers;
  6. Is the company liable to corporation tax on receipt of the legacy;
  7. It is not unusual for corporate executors owned by, say, law firms or accountancy firms, to be registered as “dormant” at Companies House. If such a company accepts the legacy, even if it redistributes it in full in accordance with the testator’s wishes, does it need to convert to “active” status and file accounts, etc.?


  1. The executor (or one of the executors) is tax resident outside of the UK

If chattels are given to an executor who is non-UK tax resident, s.143 IHTA 1984 and s.62(4) Taxation of Chargeable Gains Act 1992 (TCGA 1992) will still apply to avoid any tax consequences within the UK.  However, they will not affect the tax consequences of inheriting and disposing of assets in the jurisdiction in which the executor is tax resident.  Even a disclaimer of the gift may have tax consequences for non-UK tax resident individuals or companies.

  1. The executor (or one of the executors) is in receipt of means tested benefits, or is bankrupt

On first glance, as the chattels are given absolutely to the executor, where the executor receives means tested benefits (which can include the provision of care by a local authority), compliance with the testator’s wishes could be deemed “deprivation”, impacting the individual’s right to benefits.  Whilst the relevant authority might treat the executor merely as a cipher of the testator, and ignore the gift when assessing the right to benefits, there is no established case on this aspect.

Similarly, there seems no established case on whether the gift would vest in a bankrupt’s trustee in bankruptcy, or if such a trustee could apply to set aside compliance with the testator’s wishes if the executor is subsequently made bankrupt.

Capital gains tax

Usually, capital gains tax (CGT) has little relevance to the disposal of chattels, as they are generally considered “wasting assets” and therefore exempt.  If any item, or set of items, is valued at over £6,000 a disposal by the executor other than in accordance with the testator’s wishes could result in the executor needing to return any such disposal to HMRC for CGT purposes.

In most cases, there will be no perceptible change in value between the date of death and the date the executor gifts such items on.  However, if there are works of art, or “collectables”, involved, values could change significantly and gains (or losses) may arise even over relatively short periods.

Where s.143 IHTA 1984 applies, it is understood the recipients will be treated as acquiring the chattels as “legatee” under s.62(4) TCGA 1992 – the same as if such items had been gifted directly to them under the terms of the will.

If the executor is a company then, whilst CGT will not be an issue, the company will be subject to corporation tax.  Accordingly, unlike with CGT, any change in value of the chattels may be subject to tax.


When considering how chattels might be dealt with after the testator’s death, it is important to also consider the position/status of the persons to whom they might be left in the will.  As identified above, issues may arise if they are:

  • a corporate body,
  • non-UK tax resident,
  • elderly and in receipt of, or potentially in receipt of, means tested benefits, or
  • are, or could potentially be declared, bankrupt.

If the gift is similar in form to the example at the start of this article, it is important that the testator’s letter of wishes (or such other direction by the testator) deals with all items that might be included within the gift, whether specifically listed or included within a “mopping-up”, so as to avoid the consequences discussed at 1, above.

A possible alternative strategy might be merely(?) to give the executor, or some other third party, a right to choose chattels which, without imposing any binding trust or other obligation, they can then distribute in accordance with the testator’s stated wishes.  Provided that the items chosen are limited to those in respect of which the testator has expressed their wishes, this should avoid many of the above issues.

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