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Gifts to charities in wills

Smee & Ford is an interesting company whose existence is very little known by anyone outside the world of charities. What they do is constantly search the probate registries and obtain details of wills; if they find that a charity has been left money or the whole or part of an estate it immediately notifies the charity concerned. The big charities and many of their smaller brethren will then contact the executors and make known their interest in the estate. If a charitable gift is modest, say for example a cash sum of £500, the subsequent monitoring will be fairly relaxed. If however the gift is all or a part of the estate the monitoring can be quite intense and executors can be frightened or at the very least feel a little intimidated by the “efficiency” of the officers employed by the charity. Of course it all comes down to money and the charity quite rightly wants to maximize its return, so if it is getting a share of the residue it will want to ensure that the residue is increased by making the most of the assets and minimizing the liabilities as much as it can.

It is not unknown for charities to go to court to contest decisions of the executors or interpretations of inheritance tax law where they think that a substantial amount of money might be at stake. Cancer Research UK reportedly received £148 million over the last financial year in legacies out of over £468 million in total income (funding £325 million spent on research) so the importance to them of gifts in wills is high.

Where a substantial, or potentially substantial, sum has been left in a will I would (of course) recommend that the executors instruct a solicitor to assist them in dealing with the charity or charities and to help them equalize the relationship, preferably at the outset so that a strategy can be planned well ahead, possibly involving the charity at an early stage, so that “ground rules” can be established.

From a practical point of view when you come to make your own will you can reduce some of the potential pressure your executors might come under: where it is practicable it might make more sense to leave a charity a cash sum, even if that cash sum is substantial, rather than invite possible future conflicts over what the right amount of residue should be. Of course, we have to recommend you seek specific legal advice when making a will.

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