Wills and charitable legacies

A will is a legal document explaining what a person wants to happen to their possessions after their death. The instructions within the will for distributing those possessions are known as legacies.

About wills and legacies

Many charities benefit from legacies or bequests in wills. Usually a legacy will pass to the charity with very little difficulty. However, where a will is not clearly written, doubts may arise about which charity is entitled to receive the legacy.

Related guidance

Ex gratia payments by for charities – case studies Find out what to do if your charity is legally entitled to receive property but you think someone else has a stronger moral claim

Paying for wills with charity funds Charities can pay for will preparation to meet their charitable purposes or to support fund-raising initiatives. Find out more.

Common questions

How should I leave money to a charity in my will?

If you want to leave money or property to a charity you should:

  • check the charity's name is correct
  • if it is a registered charity, quote the charity number
  • tell the charity about your legacy and ask that you be informed if in future the charity winds up or merges with another charity, so that you can change your legacy accordingly.

You could also, to avoid problems, include wording such as “if this charity does not exist or cannot be traced, the money can be given to a charity that helps [state the charitable purpose, eg relief of sickness]”.

If you need general help about wills, you should take your own professional advice as we cannot give individuals advice about this.

What is the Commission's approach towards wills and legacies for charities?

Our general approach is that we will not help with finding potential charitable beneficiaries. This is a task for the executors named in the will.

We very rarely need to get involved. Where executors have doubts or difficulties about whether or not particular legacies should go to charitable beneficiaries, they need to seek their own professional advice, for example from a solicitor.

For further information see our operational guidance, Will cases: Redirecting failed charitable legacies.

I cannot identify from the will which charity to give the legacy to. What should I do?

If the will refers to a particular charity, and you think that there is an error in the way that the charity has been described, consider the following:

  • is the description a minor error which can be ignored?
  • what can be done to identify the charity from the description given?
  • are there instructions contained in the will that could help with identification?
  • is there any evidence of supporting the charity during the lifetime of the person who made the will?
  • is the recipient charity one that has changed its name?
  • is the recipient charity known by more than one name?
  • can the recipient charity be found by location or purpose, for example "the cats' home in Cardiff"?
  • can the name be read as a description, for example, "Trust for Preservation of Our Ancient Churches" may mean The Historic Churches Preservation Trust?

Consider using the advanced search in the register of charities, although you should note that not all charities are registered.

Sometimes legacies are for a charitable purpose, for example the relief of sickness, and they do not name particular charities. In these situations the legacy can be given by the executors to any charity or charities which carry out that purpose.

For further detail on this, and other reasons why executors may have difficulty in identifying the correct charitable beneficiaries, please see section B in our guidance Will cases: Redirecting failed charitable legacies.

The charity named in the will does not exist any more. What should I do?

You will need to read our guidance, including the case studies. This is because what you should do will depend on the circumstances, such as whether the charity ceased to exist before or after the date of death.

Can the Commission confirm that I can pay a legacy to a charity?

The Commission will not confirm - by providing legal authority - the payment of legacies just because the executors have some doubt about whether or not they have identified the correct charity. We will only provide authority if it is legally required.

Are there occasions when the Commission must be involved?

There are rare situations when we must be involved to help when it is not possible for the instructions in the will to be carried out. You can find more information about this in section B3 of our guidance.

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