Default gifts

A default gift is simply a provision that states if a particular gift cannot be given to the person initially chosen for it, it should instead go to someone else.

This is often the case for valuable items, or items of special sentimental significance that you would like to ensure go to a specific person rather than being dealt with as part of your residuary estate (see our page Residuary estate for more information). In theory, you can have several default options for a single item. For example, ‘I would like my piano to go to Simon. If it cannot go to Simon, I would like it to go to Clare. If it cannot go to Clare…’.

For the sake of keeping your will as clear as possible for your executors, it is not recommended that you include a large number of default options for gifts, as it will make your will lengthier than it needs to be. Good alternative options are leaving money to charity, or allowing your executors to use their discretion in the case of a default.

The default beneficiaries – the people who will benefit if your first choice cannot do so – do not have any entitlement to anything unless the first beneficiary cannot take the gift.

You can make a default gift of your residuary estate, or your whole estate, if you so wish.

Ultimate default gift

Wills often have an ultimate default gift to avoid the will failing and your estate then being distributed according to the intestacy rules. If, for example, you leave your estate to your partner and then to your children, there could be no beneficiaries left in the very unlikely event that none of them survive you. Although this sort of scenario is very rare, it can happen so it is always advisable to have another layer of beneficiaries to ensure your will does not fail.

Ultimate default gifts are in effect a back-stop measure and are often made in favour of charities. You can nominate which specific charities are to benefit but, as it is very unlikely that the gift will ever become a reality, it is more common to leave it to your executors to decide on the precise charities at the relevant time.

Including an ultimate default gift in your will can also help if any trust that your will has created has not been fully distributed within the allowable life of the trust (this is known as the trust period and is currently 125 years). It is very unlikely that the trustees will not have distributed the trust assets within this timeframe but if they haven’t, for whatever reason, the remaining assets will revert to your estate. If all of the beneficiaries you have named in your will are no longer living, there will be no-one left to benefit from these assets. Having an ultimate default gift in favour of charities gets round this problem.