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Which Mrs Wilson should receive the death lump sum benefit?

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Trustees should be prepared for the unexpected. Clare James explains the importance of exploring more than one avenue of information before making decisions.

You may have caught the BBC Drama “Mrs Wilson”, which was screened in three parts over the Christmas period. By the end of part one, I was hooked, as what appeared to be a normal, average family, the Wilsons, was shown to be anything but. After the death of her ex-Secret Intelligence Service husband, the central character, Mrs Ruth Wilson, discovers that her husband was a serial bigamist and as the story unfolds, a stream of other Mrs Wilsons and their children emerge onto the scene.

I was reminded of the Mrs Wilsons this week in my role as a professional independent trustee when making determinations concerning the recipients of death in service lump sum payments. Whilst, thankfully, the cases I have dealt with have generally been relatively straightforward in comparison, it struck me that were I the trustee making a determination in the case of the late Mr Wilson, this would be a far from clear-cut situation. For starters, with questions over the validity of divorce papers, it is not at all obvious which of the Mrs Wilson's, if any, would ultimately be deemed to be the legal wife. All the Mrs Wilsons appeared to be financially dependent on the late Mr Wilson to some extent; some had grown up families, in one case there was a young boy.

I start from the premise that the late Mr Wilson is unlikely to have left a nomination form or will. In such circumstances, would it therefore only be fair to split the death in service lump sum equally between the numerous Mrs Wilsons? However, some of the Mrs Wilsons may be in more need of financial support than others and by sharing the death in service lump sum benefit out so widely this would dilute the support it would provide to the Mrs Wilsons who might need it the most. Furthermore, lump sum death in service benefit determinations are not awarded on a means tested basis. Then again, if the benefit was to be awarded to only one Mrs Wilson, on what basis could that decision be made?

Fortunately, I don’t actually need to make that decision, and my musings are more a flight of fancy than anything else. But trustees do have to make death lump sum determinations on a regular basis. And if you think that Mr Wilson’s clandestine lifestyle is a work of fiction, you are reminded at the end of the series that the Mrs Wilson drama is actually based on a true story. What I have learned from the programme – and this has been borne out by my work on a number of death benefit cases – is that some people’s circumstances can be far more complex than they first appear.

As a trustee, it is therefore generally a good idea to get information corroborated by more than one source, and ideally two independent sources. In the context of feuding families, the perspective of a long-standing trusted work colleague of the deceased can sometimes provide helpful insight. There is always more than one side to a story. Scrutinising any financial supporting paperwork can also be revealing, as well as casting the net more widely, for example by looking at obituaries in the local press.

In conclusion, as a trustee, it is really important to keep an open mind and to expect the unexpected when making death in service lump sum benefit determinations.

Clare James, Client Director at PTL