Death of a spouse or civil partner

Updated on 10 September 2020

Bereavement

On this page, we tell you what you need to do in relation to tax matters if your spouse or civil partner dies. We also set out some of the common areas where problems can occur.

widow holding photo of husband (c) Shutterstock / Photographee.eu
(c) Shutterstock / Photographee.eu

Do I need to contact HM Revenue & Customs?

Yes, you may need to contact HMRC, either directly or through the Tell Us Once service. See our entry What do I do now someone has died? for more information.

If my spouse or civil partner dies, will this affect my state pension?

If your spouse or civil partner dies, this may affect your state pension entitlement. In some situations, you may be able to claim more state pension. The rules for inheriting or increasing state pension from a spouse or civil partner are explained on GOV.UK.

Importantly, if you do get a new, or extra, state pension as a result of your spouse or civil partner’s death, you will need to make sure that HMRC are aware of the change so that your own tax position is correct. See If my spouse or civil partner dies, will this affect my tax position? below.

You may also be entitled to any extra state pension your spouse or civil partner was entitled to because they put off claiming (deferred) it when they reached state pension age. There is more information on inheriting a deferred state pension on GOV.UK.

There is also a more detailed Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guide to what happens if a person dies while deferring their state pension on GOV.UK.

Bereavement benefits

If you are widowed, you may also be able to claim bereavement benefits. There is more information on our page: What is the effect of death on state benefits and credits?

If my spouse or civil partner dies, will this affect my tax position?

Yes, it is most likely that your tax position will change – especially if you look at your overall tax position as a household. Your late spouse or civil partner will have had a personal allowance to reduce the amount of tax they paid on their income. You have a personal allowance as well. So, between you, you could previously potentially have had twice as much income as a household as you can now without paying tax.

This change can be particularly noticeable if your late spouse or civil partner was a pensioner and, on top of your own income, you now ‘inherit’ some element of extra private or state pension income.

Let’s say for instance that you had £14,000 of pension income in total before your spouse or civil partner’s death. In 2020/21, the personal allowance is £12,500, so you would only pay tax on £1,500 of your income. Your spouse or civil partner also has £14,000 of pension income, so again they paid tax on £1,500 of it. So together you have £28,000 income, and pay tax of £600 (£3,000 at 20%), assuming you do not live in Scotland where tax rates are different (see our Scottish income tax information).

But if your spouse or civil partner died on 5 April 2020, and from 6 April 2020 you inherit half of their pension (£7,000) on top of your own pension, your total income will then be £21,000. (⚠️ Note: however, that this can depend on what type of pension it is and how old the pensioner was when they died, as some ‘inherited’ pension income is not taxable in the hands of the recipient – you can read about this on our page What happens to pension policies and life assurance policies the deceased held at death?) After deducting your personal allowance of £12,500, you will pay tax on £8,500. So you now have £21,000 of income and pay tax of £1,700 (£8,500 @ 20%).

So, even though you have less income than you had as a household before, more tax is payable. It is very important to make sure HMRC are aware if you start receiving any income or an increased amount of income, so that you do not end up underpaying tax. Read on for more information.

Death benefits

If your spouse or civil partner was employed at the time of their death, they may have been a member of a scheme run by their employer that pays out death benefits (a kind of life assurance). These funds are normally tax-free. You should contact any employer to advise them of the death and ask about any benefits.

Also, if your spouse or civil partner had been a member of a pension scheme before they died, but had not already begun to draw their pension, then it is likely that the pension scheme will pay out some form of death benefits, or that there will be a fund left behind that beneficiaries can take money fromThis will be the case whether the pension scheme was linked to an employment or not. The trustees of the pension scheme often have discretion (in other words they can choose) as to who receives the death benefit, although they will take into account any wishes expressed by the deceased.

Bear in mind that any lump sum you receive may affect your entitlement to state benefits and may also generate income that may become taxable (see below).

You can read more about pension and life insurance policies on our page What happens to pension policies and life assurance policies the deceased held at death?

Savings interest

For 2016/17 and later years, you only need to pay tax on your savings income if it exceeds your personal savings allowance.

Like the personal allowance situation noted above, this might be an issue to watch out for if you have inherited savings from your late spouse or civil partner that pay interest.

Your personal savings allowance, if you are a basic rate taxpayer, allows you to receive up to £1,000 in a tax year without any tax being payable. Your spouse or civil partner would also have had a personal savings allowance, so – between the two of you – you may have been paying no tax on savings income. But once you start to receive the combined income in your sole name, you will need to check that you are not due to pay tax, or whether the additional savings interest you have acquired is covered by, for example, the zero per cent starting rate on savings.

You may also find our page savings and tax helpful.

Other income

If your spouse or civil partner dies, as we have explained, you may get extra money from pensions or savings for example. If you receive extra money, this may mean you have to pay more tax.

There is a guide on GOV.UK explaining what income you must report to HMRC, and what income they should already know about. However, even if HMRC should know about changes to your income (such as an increase in state pension, or receipt of a spouse’s pension), sometimes the information does not get through, or errors can occur.

So, check your tax to make sure that all of your new sources of income are included. If you do not complete a tax return each year, check your PAYE codes carefully and contact HMRC if there is anything you do not understand or if you think something is incorrect or missing.

Tax allowances

As well as your income changing, the amount of your allowances (that is, the amount you do not pay income tax on), may also change if your spouse or civil partner dies.

Up until your spouse or civil partner’s death, you may have claimed other allowances or transferred allowances between you which may change after death. For example, you may have claimed to transfer part of one of your personal allowances to the other (the marriage allowance). In that case, the last year of claim will be the year in which the death occurred. GOV.UK explains how marriage allowances works in the year of death.

Note that claims to the marriage allowance are allowed in cases where a partner has died before the claim is made. Such claims can be backdated by up to four years provided all other conditions for the allowance are met. If your deceased spouse or civil partner had the lower income, the person responsible for managing their tax affairs (the executor or personal representative, if this is not you) will need to contact HMRC to make the claim.

If one of you was born before 6 April 1935, you may have claimed the married couple’s allowance (MCA). More information on this, including what happens on death, is given in our pensioners section, but essentially:

  • If you and your spouse or civil partner were eligible for the MCA, the full amount is available in the year of death.
  • If the allowance was given to you in the first instance (for example, because you have the higher income) but your late spouse or civil partner had claimed all or part of the MCA from you, the balance can be transferred back to you if their income to the date of death is insufficient to use it all.
  • Similarly, if your spouse or civil partner dies leaving a surplus MCA, you can use this against your income arising in the tax year both before and after the date of death.
  • If your spouse or civil partner was claiming blind person’s allowance (BPA) and they did not have enough income to use up the allowance, you can ask HMRC to transfer the rest of the BPA for that tax year to you. There is more information on the BPA and how to transfer it in the tax basics section.

If my spouse or civil partner dies, what happens to their ISA?

On the death of your spouse or civil partner, you can inherit an additional ISA allowance equal to the value of your spouse or civil partner’s ISA savings at the date of their death. The additional allowance will not count towards your normal annual subscription limit. Broadly this would allow you, if you wish, to transfer your spouse’s or civil partner’s ISA into your own ISA.

You may not use the additional allowance to subscribe to a junior ISA.

To be eligible, you must have been living together at the time of your spouse or civil partner’s death. Living together means that you must not be separated by a court order, by a deed of separation, or as a matter of fact in circumstances in which the separation is likely to be permanent. If, for example, one of you had moved into a care home, that would not necessarily mean that you were not living together for these purposes.

You must also be eligible to subscribe for an ISA in your own right – this means that you must be resident for tax purposes in the UK and must be aged 16 or over for a cash ISA (18 or over for a stocks and shares ISA). If you do not live in the UK, you must be a Crown servant, or the spouse or civil partner of a Crown servant.

Time limits also apply – normally you have to make a subscription to an ISA to use this additional allowance within three years of the date of death.

You can find out more about inheriting an ISA on GOV.UK.

Do I have to sort out my spouse or civil partner’s tax affairs myself?

It is usually down to the deceased’s executor or personal representative to sort out their tax affairs. The executor or personal representative may be you, or it may be a solicitor, another relative or family friend.

If it is you, you can use an agent (for example, a tax adviser) to deal with some of the tax affairs of the estate if you do not feel confident to deal with them yourself. Their fees are paid out of the estate.

You can read about dealing with the deceased’s tax affairs to date of death on our page How does the personal representative deal with the income tax and capital gains tax affairs of the deceased?

You can read about dealing with any income or gains that arise during the estate’s administration period on our page How does the personal representative deal with income and gains arising after the deceased’s death?

What do I have to do about inheritance tax?

We cover inheritance tax (IHT) on a death, including the rules around spouses or civil partners, on our page, What reliefs and exemptions are there from inheritance tax?.

Where can I find more information and get help?

HMRC have a bereavement tool that provides guidance for a surviving spouse or civil partner.

If you are concerned about what will happen to your pension income after the death of your spouse or civil partner, you may be able to find assistance from The Pensions Advisory Service, an independent non-profit organisation that provides free information and guidance on pensions.

For further sources of information and support, see our separate page Getting help with bereavement and inheritance tax.

Tax on income and gains after death

Joint property on death

More information on Bereavement
What taxes need to be dealt with when someone dies?

What happens to pension policies and life assurance policies the deceased held at death?

How does the personal representative deal with the income tax and capital gains tax affairs of the deceased?

What about income I received from the estate of a deceased person?

How does the personal representative deal with income and capital gains arising after the deceased’s death?

What reliefs and exemptions are there from inheritance tax?

Death of a spouse or civil partner

What is the effect of death on state benefits and credits?

What happens to property owned jointly by the deceased and someone else?

Getting help with bereavement and inheritance tax

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