The Forsyth Saga

Last Friday, news broke of the sad death of Sir Bruce Forsyth. The former Strictly Come Dancing host and all round National Treasure passed away at the age of 89, following a lengthy battle with illness. 

Reports in various national papers have since detailed the star’s alleged estate planning which, according to ‘a friend’, was done in an effort to “avoid it being gobbled up by the taxman”. By all accounts, Sir Bruce has left all of his £17million estate (didn’t he do well?) to his wife outright where it has then been widely reported that his widow Wilnelia will then “be able to transfer up to £650,000 to each relative tax free to avoid inheritance tax”.

Whilst is it true that legacies to spouses are free from inheritance tax by virtue of the spousal exemption, legalmatters shakes its head at the level of misinformation reported. Quite frankly it doesn’t even know where to start with dissecting what a flawed and short-sighted piece of alleged tax planning this represents, but here goes.

So what is the actual position (if indeed these were his wishes) and why might it be regarded as a potentially reckless and ineffective idea?

First of all, the tabloid press have been quoting the figure of £650,000 supposedly available for Wilnelia to generously distribute ‘to each relative’ once Sir Bruce’s legacy has been transferred. Each relative!?! If this was the case, then the majority of estate planners would be out of a job and considered, surplus to requirements.

It would appear that the press have confused the level of transferrable nil rate band available to the surviving spouse on death with what an individual is able to give away tax free during their lifetime. Whilst Wilnelia would indeed be able to benefit from her late husband’s inherited nil rate band of £325,000 to combine with her own on her death, her late husband’s nil rate band is not something that she would be free to make use of during her lifetime. The articles also totally disregard the newly established ‘residential nil rate band’ that this tax year alone would have increased the late entertainer’s tax free allowance by an additional £100,000 (but latterly would allow a combined nil rate band of £1,000,000 if left to lineal descendants).

Any legacy left to a spouse is free of tax by virtue of the spousal exemption. Wilnelia is, of course, free to make gifts to whoever she likes during her lifetime. As long as she were to live another 7 years following such gifts (of any monetary value) these would also be inheritance tax ‘free’. Quite honestly, she could gift the full £17 million equally amongst his 6 children (or whoever she so wishes) as soon as she had received the monies from probate, should she be so inclined, but therein lies the issue.

If indeed this is the arrangement, there is NOTHING obliging Wilnelia to carry out the ‘wishes’ of her late husband. Outright gifts by their very nature, leave the recipient free to do whatever they like with the legacy. Despite ‘wishes’ or ‘instructions’ from the deceased, there is nothing legally binding to see that these are fulfilled. The deceased is simply requesting the recipient to make distributions and is hoping that this will be carried out. Whilst this level of trust is admirable, the private client practitioner knows more than most that trusting your relatives to ‘do the right thing’ on your death is a dangerous assumption.

Let us assume that, despite having no legal obligations to do so, the recipient of the legacy has every honourable intention of making these posthumous gifts. They themselves would need to survive another 7 years which is always a risky proposition. What instead, if they were to lose mental capacity and unable to make such transfers? Michael Schumacher’s tragic accident and resultant circumstances have shown that age, wealth and level of fitness have nothing to do with a lack of mental capacity and inability to manage your own affairs. How can we be sure that Wilnelia shall live a long and untroubled life, free of illness and incapacity? Her ability to make gifts from her late husband’s fortune and to therefore share the wealth and to reduce her own liabilities to inheritance tax is dependent on her being mentally fit and well; certainly, any attorneys that she may have appointed won’t be able to undertake such tax planning ventures without court authority (another common misconception).

So what might Sir Bruce have done to make provision for his children and grandchildren (and indeed he could well have done, because we are commenting on the reporting, not on actual events)?

Lifetime gifting would have been the best starting point. If carried out wisely and cautiously, after careful advice and taking all needs of the parties into due consideration, then lifetime gifting is an excellent way of reducing your tax bill.

And what about the use of trusts? Despite trusts having their own particular tax regimes, they are immensely useful structures to protect and preserve assets against unknown circumstances. Tax shouldn’t necessarily always be the driver, particularly where significant wealth is concerned.

Finally, any charitable giving would have the double benefit of not only being exempt from IHT for the legacy itself, but it could also have reduced his IHT rate to 36% if he had left 10% or more of his total estate to charity. A Brucie bonus if you will.

For the papers to glibly report that Sir Bruce has ‘in one fell swoop’ cannily avoided inheritance tax and at the same time ensured that his wealth lands where he would wish is, in our humble opinion, grossly underestimating the risks and potential issues at hand and is in any event based on apparent mis-reporting of the facts.

Make sure that your wishes are adequately enshrined in the correct, binding, legal documents as the road to court is paved with good intentions. Nice to sue you, to sue you, nice. Speak to a member of the team at legalmatters on 01243 216900 or email us at info@legalmatters.co.uk to find out more.

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