It is common for couples to make so-called ‘mirror’ wills, leaving everything to each other and, eventually, to their children. Such documents may appear simple but, as one High Court case showed, they can be effectively unchangeable, depending on what promises are made at the time.
A husband and wife signed mirror wills in 2000 which provided that each 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, each replacing the other, before her own death 16 years later. The last of those wills bequeathed £40,000 in legacies to the daughters, but the remainder of the wife’s £213,000 net estate to other beneficiaries.
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. They 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 upholding the daughters’ arguments, the High Court accepted their evidence as to the mutual promise that their parents had made. 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.