Inheritance tax for married couples
The question of how to structure your will is a complex one involving consideration of a range of different factors. Married couples with significant assets should consider the option of using an appropriate will trust on first death due to the tax planning opportunities available.
What is the inheritance tax nil rate band?
The inheritance tax “nil rate band” is the threshold below which no inheritance tax is payable. In recent years the nil rate band rules have become ever more complex with the introduction of three new elements alongside the standard nil rate band; they are:
- transferable nil rate band
- residence nil rate band
- downsizing relief.
The complexity and quirks of the legislation offer many opportunities to save inheritance tax through (amongst other things) an appropriately structured will.
Please note: references to spouses and married couples include civil partners and it’s assumed that all the persons in the examples are UK domiciled. Depending on your circumstances there may be other tax and/or legal issues to consider so it’s always important to take advice.
Married couples where one or both of the couple have previously been widowed
Married couples where one or both of the couple have previously been widowed may be able to save significant inheritance tax by maximising their ability to transfer the unused nil rate bands of their late spouses (known as the “transferable nil rate band”).
Bob and Mavis, a married couple, have both previously been widowed. Bob’s late wife, Gill, died in 2008 and Mavis’s late husband, Jim, died in 2009. Both Gill and Jim left their estates to their respective surviving spouses.
Bob and Mavis each have assets worth £650,000 (which they own separately). Unusually, they do not own and have never owned their own homes (so residence nil rate band does not apply to them, more on which below).
They would like the survivor of them to inherit the assets of the first to die and on the second death for the total estate to be divided equally between Bob’s son and Mavis’ daughter. In the circumstances the full standard nil rate band applies to both of them and to their late spouses’ estates.
Bob dies in 2019 and leaves his entire estate to Mavis. Mavis dies in 2021, leaving everything to her daughter and Bob’s son in equal shares. For simplicity, assume no changes in asset values between their deaths.
The inheritance tax position: On Bob’s death there will be no liability for inheritance tax because of the spouse exemption. On Mavis’ death her executors will be able to use her nil rate band (£325,000) and claim a transferable nil rate band (also £325,000). However, even though she has now been widowed twice, she can only claim one transferable nil rate band.
Therefore, the inheritance tax liability on Mavis’ death will be £1.3 million - £650,000 x 40% = £260,000.
The facts are the same as in Example 1, except that Bob and Mavis make wills leaving the available nil rate band of the first to die and any transferable nil rate band from that person’s late spouse to a nil rate band discretionary trust.
On Bob’s death his entire estate (£650,000) will pass to the nil rate band trust. Mavis is included as a beneficiary of the trust so can benefit from funds if required at the discretion of the trustees. There is no inheritance tax liability on Bob’s death because of the nil rate band and transferable nil rate band available to his estate (his own nil rate band and the transferable nil rate band from his late wife, Gill.)
On Mavis’s death her estate of £650,000 will also be free from inheritance tax because her executors can claim her own nil rate band and the transferable nil rate band from her late husband, Jim. Hence there would be no inheritance tax on the death of either Bob or Mavis.
Mavis’s estate is left to the two children and the trustees of the discretionary trust could then decide to wind up that trust and appoint the assets to the two children.
Please note: There would be a small inheritance tax charge on the discretionary trust, which will vary depending on how long the trust runs for. In the example, if the trust was wound up shortly after Mavis’s death this charge would be approximately £4000. This would still mean an overall inheritance tax saving of approximately £256,000!
It should also be noted that this approach could have saved significant tax even if only one of them had previously been widowed (whichever one of them died first).
It is also the case that there are other reasons why the first of them to die might want to leave some or all of their assets to some form of will trust, e.g. to protect the intended inheritance of their own child. These issues are not considered here for simplicity but you can contact us to discuss any of these issues.
Standard nil rate band has been frozen until at least April 2026
The amount of the standard nil rate band has been frozen at its current level (£325,000) since 6 April 2009 and the government has announced that it will remain at that level until at least 5 April 2026.
Many married couples do not use the nil rate band on the death of the first of them to die, taking advantage of the transferable nil rate band. However, the freezing of the nil rate band means that the benefit of the transferable nil rate band can often be eroded by inflation. A nil rate band trust can avoid this erosion so could save tax on second death (assuming the nil rate band does not increase significantly in future).
Tony dies in 2021 leaving his entire estate to his wife, Georgina. This includes an investment portfolio worth £325,000 (which Tony was advised had strong growth potential). Neither of them has previously been widowed and their full nil rate bands of £325,000 are available.
Georgina dies in 2025 leaving a chargeable estate of £1.5 million, which is inherited by their children. This includes the investment portfolio she inherited from Tony, which is now worth £425,000.
While the investment portfolio has grown by £100,000 since Tony’s death (and so will increase the inheritance tax charge on Georgina’s death), the nil rate band remains unchanged.
The facts are as per Example 3 except that Tony leaves a nil rate band discretionary trust in his will. After his death the decision is taken to fund the trust by transferring the investment portfolio to it. Under the terms of the trust, Georgina can benefit if required at the discretion of the trustees. The portfolio is left in the trust.
The £100,000 growth on the investment portfolio is now held in the trust and is outside of Georgina’s estate for inheritance tax. This will achieve an inheritance tax saving of £40,000 compare to example 3. There would be some capital gains tax issues to consider.
In 2017 the Government introduced an additional nil rate band for people who leave an interest in their home to certain qualifying beneficiaries (including children). This is known as the residence nil rate band. The rules for residence nil rate band are very complex so specialist advice should always be taken.
One point to note is that the residence nil rate band starts to be clawed back once your estate exceeds £2 million. The clawback rules are very complicated, but will eliminate residence nil rate band altogether, once the estate reaches a maximum of £2.7 million (depending on your circumstances, residence nil rate band could be eliminated before that level). Assets that qualify for business property relief or agricultural property relief are included when working out whether clawback applies.
Some married couples can reduce or even eliminate the impact of the clawback by using a nil rate band discretionary trust.
Martha and Henry are married and have a combined estate of £2.7 million, divided equally between them. Neither of them has previously been widowed and both have their full nil rate band of £325,000 available. Their estate includes their home worth £900,000. On Marta’s death in 2018 she leaves her entire estate to Henry. Henry dies in 2021, leaving his estate to their two children.
Because Henry’s estate (including the assets inherited from Martha) is at the maximum clawback threshold, no residence nil rate band applies.
The facts are the same as example 5 except that Marta leaves her available nil rate band to a discretionary trust. Henry’s estate is now worth £2.375 million, meaning that only a partial clawback of the residence nil rate band applies. Henry’s executors will be able to claim a residence nil rate band of £187,500, saving inheritance tax of £75,000.
Please note: The impact of the residence nil rate band clawback rules will become more widely felt over the next few years following the government’s decision to freeze the clawback threshold at £2 million until at least 6 April 2026. Many estates will become subject to a full or partial reduction in the residence nil rate band assuming asset values rise in the interim. Again, a nil rate band discretionary trust can mitigate this in appropriate circumstances by keeping down the value of the survivor’s estate.
Residence nil rate band may not be available (or fully available) where you sell your home. A common example is where elderly clients sell their home and leave the property market altogether or downsize late in life to funds care needs.
Where you sell your home or downsize on or after 8 July 2015, there is an alternative relief called downsizing relief which may be available instead of or alongside any remaining residence nil rate band. However, the rules for this are extremely complex and you should take advice to make sure it will be available. The £2million clawback threshold mentioned above, also applies to any downsizing relief so, again, there are opportunities to reduce or eliminate the impact of clawback in appropriate cases.
Impact of equity release on nil rate band
Decisions about equity release or other borrowing secured on your home can impact on the amount of residence nil rate band available. It’s important to take both legal and wealth management advice when making decisions about your home, where your estate is or may be subject to inheritance tax.
Chat to the Author, Nicola Havers
Executive Partner - Wills, trusts, tax & probate, Bishop's Stortford officeMeet Nicola
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