Common tragedy: how to do good when the worst happens
By Maplebrook Wills
8th Oct '18
What would happen if you and your family died at the same time?
It’s a truly horrible scenario to contemplate, but that’s exactly what happened to 58-year-old businessman Richard Cousins on New Year’s Eve 2017.
Mr Cousins and his two sons were tragically killed in a seaplane accident near Sydney. His fiancee and her daughter also died in the accident, which occurred during a chartered sightseeing flight.
But this appalling tragedy led to an extraordinary act of generosity. It was made possible by a special clause in Mr Cousins’ will.
A special gift
According to newspaper reports, the clause triggered a gift worth £41m to Oxfam. That’s more than double the £19.8m the charity received from all wills combined in 2016-2017.
Richard Cousins was CEO of catering giant Compass Group, one of Britain’s biggest companies. He had named his two sons as beneficiaries in his will, and they would have inherited his estate had they survived.
Tragically, this didn’t happen in Richard Cousins’ case. But he’d reportedly added a ‘common tragedy clause’ to his will a year before his untimely death. This detailed the donation to Oxfam, along with small gifts to his brothers.
What if there isn’t a common tragedy clause?
With no common tragedy clause, the estate is split between the other named beneficiaries if the main beneficiaries all lose their lives at the same time. These so-called ‘residuary beneficiaries’ receive the remainder of the estate after gifts, taxes, funeral costs and other payments have been taken out.
If there are no residuary beneficiaries still living, the estate is then administered under the rules of intestacy. In other words, it would pass to any surviving blood relatives.
The rules of intestacy, however, only recognise blood relatives and ties by marriage. Common-law partners aren’t recognised, even though they might mean far more to you than an ex-spouse from whom you’re not yet divorced.
So writing a will ensures that those you love will be taken care of, and a common tragedy clause can help ensure that your assets do some good in the world if the worst was to happen.