Define: Universal Legatee

Universal Legatee
Universal Legatee
Quick Summary of Universal Legatee

A universal legatee is an individual who is chosen to receive the entirety of a deceased person’s remaining estate. This means that they inherit all assets and property that were not explicitly given to other individuals or organisations in the will. For instance, if a person’s will states that their sister should receive their house, their nephew should receive their car, and their three children should split their savings account, the universal legatee would receive all other assets not mentioned in the will. Another example would be if a person’s will simply states that their spouse should inherit their entire estate. In this scenario, the spouse would be the universal legatee and would receive everything. In summary, a universal legatee is a crucial designation in a will as it guarantees that all remaining assets are distributed to a specific person or organisation.

What is the dictionary definition of Universal Legatee?
Dictionary Definition of Universal Legatee

A universal legatee is an individual designated in a will to inherit all remaining assets, including property, money, and possessions, after specific gifts have been distributed to other beneficiaries.

Full Definition Of Universal Legatee

A universal legatee is a term used in the context of wills and inheritance. It refers to an individual or entity that is designated to inherit the entire estate of a deceased person (testator). This overview delves into the concept of a universal legatee within the legal framework of British inheritance law, exploring its implications, the process of designation, rights and responsibilities, and relevant legal considerations.

Definition and Context

The universal legatee is distinct from other types of beneficiaries in a will. While a specific legatee inherits a particular item or a set of items and a residuary legatee inherits the remainder of the estate after specific gifts have been distributed, a universal legatee inherits everything that the testator owned at the time of their death. This designation implies that the testator intends for the universal legatee to receive their entire estate, encompassing all assets and liabilities.

Legal Framework

The legal context for the universal legatee in British inheritance law is primarily governed by the Wills Act 1837 and the Administration of Estates Act 1925. These statutes, along with common law principles, provide the foundation for the creation, execution, and interpretation of wills.

Wills Act 1837

The Wills Act of 1837 is a cornerstone of British inheritance law. It stipulates the formal requirements for a valid will, which include:

  • Testamentary Capacity: The testator must be of sound mind, memory, and understanding.
  • Intention: The testator must intend for the document to operate as their will.
  • Written Document: The will must be in writing.
  • Signature: The will must be signed by the testator or by someone else in their presence and in their direction.
  • Attestation: The will must be witnessed by at least two individuals who are present at the same time.

The universal legatee must be clearly identified within the will, and the intention to confer the entirety of the estate must be explicit.

Administration of Estates Act, 1925

This Act provides a comprehensive framework for the administration of estates, outlining the duties of personal representatives and the process for distributing assets. It ensures that the rights of beneficiaries, including universal legatees, are protected and that the estate is administered efficiently.

Designation of a Universal Legatee

Designating a universal legatee involves specific steps and careful drafting to ensure clarity and compliance with legal requirements. The will must:

  • Clearly Identify the Legatee: The full name and details of the universal legatee must be included to avoid ambiguity.
  • Express Intention: The testator must unequivocally express their intention to leave the entire estate to the legatee.
  • Include a Residue Clause: This clause is critical in identifying the universal legatee as it addresses the distribution of any remaining assets after specific gifts have been allocated.

Rights and Responsibilities

A universal legatee has extensive rights and responsibilities, given that they inherit the entirety of the testator’s estate.


  • Ownership of Assets: The universal legatee gains ownership of all the testator’s assets, including real estate, personal property, investments, and other valuables.
  • Control Over the Estate: The legatee has the authority to manage, sell, or distribute the assets as they see fit, subject to any conditions imposed by the will.
  • Beneficiary of Residual Income: If the estate generates income after the testator’s death (e.g., rental income from properties), the universal legatee is entitled to receive it.
  • Legal Standing: The universal legatee has the legal standing to challenge the administration of the estate or any disputes arising from the will.


  • Settling Debts and Liabilities: The universal legatee is responsible for ensuring that all outstanding debts and liabilities of the testator are settled before distributing the remaining assets.
  • Tax Obligations: Inheritance tax and other relevant taxes must be calculated and paid from the estate. The legatee must ensure compliance with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) regulations.
  • Fair Distribution: If the will includes provisions for other beneficiaries, the universal legatee must ensure these are honoured before assuming control of the remaining estate.

Legal Considerations

Several legal considerations must be taken into account when designating a universal legatee and administering an estate.

Testamentary Capacity and Undue Influence

Ensuring that the testator had testamentary capacity at the time of making the will is crucial. Any evidence of undue influence or coercion can lead to the will being contested and potentially invalidated. Legal professionals often recommend that the testator undergo a capacity assessment, especially if there are concerns about their mental state.

Contesting the Will

Even with a universal legatee named, the will can be contested by potential beneficiaries or interested parties. Common grounds for contesting include:

  • Lack of Testamentary Capacity: Claiming the testator was not of sound mind.
  • Undue Influence: Asserting that the testator was pressured into naming the universal legatee.
  • Fraud or Forgery: Alleging that the will was tampered with or forged.
  • Lack of Proper Execution: Claiming the will did not meet the formal requirements of the Wills Act 1837.

Intestacy Rules

If a will is successfully contested and invalidated, the estate may be distributed according to the intestacy rules, which set out the hierarchy of relatives entitled to inherit. In such cases, the intended universal legatee might receive nothing if they are not a close relative under these rules.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax is a significant consideration. The universal legatee must ensure that all inheritance tax obligations are met before distributing the estate. The current threshold and rates set by HMRC apply, and any tax due must be paid within six months of the death to avoid interest and penalties.

Practical Steps for Universal Legatees

Upon the death of the testator, the universal legatee should take the following steps to administer the estate:

  • Obtain a Grant of Probate: This legal document authorises the legatee to administer the estate. It is obtained from the Probate Registry.
  • Inventory of Assets and Liabilities: Compile a comprehensive list of the testator’s assets and liabilities to ensure all are accounted for.
  • Settle Debts and Taxes: Pay any outstanding debts and calculate and pay any inheritance tax due.
  • Distribute the Estate: After settling liabilities, distribute the remaining assets according to the will.
  • Keep Records: Maintain detailed records of all transactions and decisions made during the administration process.

Case Law and Precedents

British courts have addressed numerous cases involving universal legatees, providing valuable precedents that guide the interpretation and application of the law.

Re Adams and the Kensington Vestry (1884)

This landmark case established principles regarding the interpretation of wills. The court held that a will must be interpreted in its entirety to ascertain the testator’s true intentions. This principle is critical when determining whether a universal legatee was intended.

Banks v Goodfellow (1870)

Banks v Goodfellow is a foundational case for testamentary capacity. The court outlined criteria for assessing whether a testator had the mental capacity to make a valid will, a key consideration if a universal legatee’s designation is challenged.


The designation of a universal legatee carries significant legal implications and responsibilities. Understanding the legal framework, the rights and duties involved, and the potential challenges is essential for both testators and delegates. With proper legal guidance and careful planning, the process can ensure that the testator’s wishes are honoured and that the estate is managed and distributed efficiently and fairly.

Universal Legatee FAQ'S

A universal legatee is a person or entity named in a will to inherit all or a portion of the deceased person’s estate.

A specific legatee is named in a will to inherit a specific item or asset, while a universal legatee inherits the entire estate or a portion of it.

Yes, a universal legatee can be a minor. However, their inheritance may be subject to certain restrictions or held in trust until they reach the age of majority.

Yes, a testator (the person creating the will) can change the universal legatee by creating a new will or by executing a codicil, which is a legal document used to make amendments to an existing will.

Yes, a universal legatee has the right to refuse their inheritance. This is known as “disclaiming” the inheritance, and it typically requires a formal written disclaimer to be filed with the appropriate court or probate authority.

In general, a universal legatee is not personally responsible for the deceased person’s debts. However, the deceased person’s debts may need to be paid from the estate before the universal legatee can receive their inheritance.

Yes, a universal legatee can be challenged in court if there are grounds to believe that the will was not validly executed, the testator lacked mental capacity, or there was undue influence or fraud involved in the creation of the will.

Yes, a universal legatee can be removed from the will if the testator creates a new will or executes a codicil that specifically revokes their inheritance.

Yes, a universal legatee can be a charity or organisation. Many people choose to leave their entire estate to charitable organisations as universal legatees.

Yes, a universal legatee can inherit property located in a different country. However, the laws of that country may impose certain requirements or restrictions on the transfer of the property to the legatee. It is advisable to consult with legal professionals in both countries to ensure compliance with all applicable laws.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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