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Where Taxpayers and Advisers Meet
Let’s NOT Get Married!
07/11/2020, by Mark McLaughlin CTA (Fellow) ATT TEP, Tax Articles - Inheritance Tax, IHT, Trusts & Estates, Capital Taxes
Rating: 1/5 from 2 people

Mark McLaughlin points out that staying single could save Inheritance Tax in certain circumstances.


The UK’s tax system features various reliefs, exemptions and allowances, some of which are seemingly designed to encourage couples to be married (or in a civil partnership). For example, gifts between spouses are normally exempt for inheritance tax (IHT) purposes (although the exemption is subject to a restriction if the recipient spouse is non-UK domiciled).

Transferable Nil Rate Band

A further potential IHT advantage for married couples is the facility to transfer unused IHT allowance (‘Nil Rate Band’) between spouses. This facility is available broadly if someone dies leaving a spouse (or civil partner), and there is some unused Nil Rate Band on the deceased’s death (IHTA 1984 s 8A(1)). The Nil Rate Band (for 2020/21) is £325,000.

For example, if a deceased spouse leaves their estate to their UK domiciled surviving spouse, the legacy will normally be wholly exempt from IHT (but the estate of the survivor is increased). On the surviving spouse’s death, their available Nil Rate Band can be increased by a percentage, which is broadly the amount of the deceased’s unused Nil Rate Band divided by the Nil Rate Band on the deceased spouse’s death.

The percentage increase in the surviving spouse’s Nil Rate Band that can be claimed is subject to an overriding maximum of 100%.

Example 1: Transferable nil rate band maximum

Albert and Brenda were married for many years. Albert died in December 1998, leaving his estate to Brenda apart from a legacy of £90,000 to his nephew, Carl.

Brenda subsequently married her lifelong friend David in April 2010. David died in March 2016. In his will, David left £150,000 to his sister Elaine, and the residue of his estate to Brenda. In June 2020, Brenda died.

On Albert’s death, his legacy to Carl used up 40.3587% of his Nil Rate Band at that time (i.e. £223,000), so 59.6413% is unused. David’s legacy to Elaine used up 46.1538% of his Nil Rate Band (i.e. £325,000), so 53.8462% is unused.

The total unused Nil Rate Band percentages for Albert and David amount to 113.4875%. However, Brenda’s personal representatives can only claim a maximum of 100%.     

Get Married or Stay Single?

As indicated above, the amount of unused Nil Rate Band that can be claimed on the surviving spouse’s death may be subject to restriction if the surviving spouse remarried following the death of an earlier spouse, and the deceased spouse(s) did not use their Nil Rate Band(s) on death.

In Example 1, Brenda’s personal representatives could claim in respect of both of her previous spouses, but her Nil Rate Band could only be increased by one additional Nil Rate Band.

The above overriding maximum transferable Nil Rate Band of 100% can sometimes cause a dilemma.

Example 2: Living Together

Frank and Grace are both aged in their early 70s, and each have adult children. They met via a dating agency for mature singles. They were both married previously, but their spouses died over ten years ago, leaving their estates to the survivors (i.e. Frank and Grace respectively). They recently had new wills drafted, leaving their estates to the survivor on the first death. Frank’s estate is worth £700,000, and Grace’s estate is valued at £800,000.

Having lived together for nearly four years, Frank and Grace are now considering marriage. What is their IHT position?

In Example 2, Frank and Grace each presently have available their own Nil Rate Band, plus the unused Nil Rate Bands of their earlier deceased spouses (i.e. four Nil Rate Bands in total). However, if they were to get married, and (say) Frank died first, on Grace’s subsequent death her personal representatives could only claim her Nil Rate Band plus one extra (i.e. Frank’s) unused Nil Rate Band. The unused Nil Rate Bands of Frank’s and Grace’s first spouses would therefore be wasted.

However, if Frank and Grace did marry, they could consider new wills leaving a legacy to (for example) the adult children of the first to die, sufficient to use the deceased’s Nil Rate Band plus the transferred Nil Rate Band from their earlier marriage.

Practical Point

In addition to a ‘standard’ IHT Nil Rate Band, extra (or ‘residence’) Nil Rate Band is potentially available, broadly where the deceased’s home is passed to a lineal descendant on the death of the surviving spouse (IHTA 1984 ss 8D–8M). The Residence Nil Rate Band maximum increases in stages, from £100,000 in 2017/18 to £175,000 in 2020/21 (subject to a tapering reduction if the value of the deceased’s estate exceeds £2 million). Where there is unused Residence Nil Rate Band, a claim can generally be made to transfer the unused element (i.e. expressed as a percentage) to a surviving spouse or (civil partner). However, the overriding maximum Residence Nil Rate Band available for transfer is 100%, or one additional Residence Nil Rate Band. Thus the Residence Nil Rate Band may need to be considered carefully as well.

The above article was first published in Property Tax Insider (February 2019) (

About The Author

Mark McLaughlin is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, a Fellow of the Association of Taxation Technicians, and a member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. From January 1998 until December 2018, Mark was a consultant in his own tax practice, Mark McLaughlin Associates, which provided tax consultancy and support services to professional firms throughout the UK.

He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Taxation’s Capital Gains Tax & Investment Income and Succession Taxes Sub-Committees.

Mark is editor and a co-author of HMRC Investigations Handbook (Bloomsbury Professional).

Mark is Chief Contributor to McLaughlin’s Tax Case Review, a monthly journal published by Tax Insider.

Mark is the Editor of the Core Tax Annuals (Bloomsbury Professional), and is a co-author of the ‘Inheritance Tax’ Annuals (Bloomsbury Professional).

Mark is Editor and a co-author of ‘Tax Planning’ (Bloomsbury Professional).

He is a co-author of ‘Ray & McLaughlin’s Practical IHT Planning’ (Bloomsbury Professional)

Mark is a Consultant Editor with Bloomsbury Professional, and co-author of ‘Incorporating and Disincorporating a Business’.

Mark has also written numerous articles for professional publications, including ‘Taxation’, ‘Tax Adviser’, ‘Tolley’s Practical Tax Newsletter’ and ‘Tax Journal’.

Mark is a Director of Tax Insider, and Editor of Tax Insider, Property Tax Insider and Business Tax Insider, which are monthly publications aimed at providing tax tips and tax saving ideas for taxpayers and professional advisers. He is also Editor of Tax Insider Professional, a monthly publication for professional practitioners.

Mark is also a tax lecturer, and has featured in online tax lectures for Tolley Seminars Online.

Mark co-founded TaxationWeb ( in 2002.

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