Charitable legacies – contesting a will

Posted on: February 18th, 2020

Inheritance disputes involving charities that end up in court often attract the keen interest of the press because they usually involve a high profile charity winning a case against a beneficiary who can be left with a hefty financial bill. This doesn’t always come across as particularly charitable. Often the money originally left to a beneficiary can be life changing and a recently amended will can lead to an emotionally difficult and confusing situation for the families involved.

A common bitter twist is that the change of will to favour the charity follows after a falling out with a beneficiary (often a close family member) shortly before death. Many are then left to question whether it’s fair that original beneficiary should lose out when the dispute may have blown over, or there may have been misunderstandings that cannot be corrected post-death. Would the deceased have calmed down and realised that they would not want to be remembered for a will deliberately excluding a relative or leaving a low sum designed to cause hurt and upset from beyond the grave?

On the other hand, charities heavily rely on bequests in wills and if someone wants to leave all to charity and not to their family, shouldn’t their wish be respected?

Recently the press ran a story involving a dispute which represents this dilemma. Sonya Young’s father sadly passed away and made an alteration to his will shortly before his death to leave the majority of his estate to a charity – the RNLI.

Her father had never had much money until shortly before his death when he inherited £300,000. His earlier will had left all of his estate to his daughter, but he then changed that to leave it to his girlfriend. Shortly before his death and now having the inherited the money, he again changed his will, this time leaving his daughter and former girlfriend £5000 each and the remainder to the RNLI. Her father did have strong links with the charity having served as a lifeboat man. His final will was prepared with a solicitor who had know him for a number of years and who also prepared a letter confirming his links to the charity and an explanation of the recent falling out with his daughter.

It is reported that following her father’s passing, Sonya Young secured her father’s funds from HSBC and paid the RNLI £214,000, spending the remainder herself. She then decided to dispute the will but lost the case. The RNLI subsequently obtained a charging order against her house for £260,000. The sum of which likely reflects the very significant legal costs incurred by the RNLI in the course of proceedings; a further bitter pill.

According to the report, Sonya Young had disputed the validity of the will on the basis that her father lacked mental capacity due to his apparent drinking and was therefore suggesting the original will should stand. The RNLI is reported to have offered £30,000 to settle the case, but that was rejected.

Setting aside the headlines and the emotive elements it’s important to understand your legal position if you are faced with a similar dilemma, or are thinking of leaving a close relative out of your will.          

In this jurisdiction, the overriding rule is that you can leave your estate to whoever you want. If a will is disputed it can be challenged effectively on two grounds.  Firstly that the will is invalid, in which case the previous will, if any, applies, or in the absence of which, a set of statutory rules known as the “intestacy rules apply”. There is no point in a validity challenge unless you stand to benefit under either of these alternatives. These challenges, including lack of capacity, are complex and require skill and critical analysis if they are to be pursued. Compelling evidence is needed and anything falling short can be a costly mistake if you still push on with a claim.

The second challenge to a will is when close relatives and dependants claim that the court should adjust the financial provision in the will under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Only limited parties can claim and the award of the court may still fall below the expectations of those pursuing the challenge. When reflecting on the above case, on the face of it, the offer made by the RNLI seems to reflect a likely outcome to such a claim and as such, was a well placed offer.

Whether you are considering such a claim or making an exclusionary will, great care should be taken. Perfectly good challenges can be made, so it’s important to seek expert legal advice and avoid emotionally charged or snap decisions. This will allow for the right decisions to be made at the right stage to avoid litigation, costs and upset. You never get the full story in a press report, but on the face of it Sonya Young’s case was one to settle; whether her father was right to make a bequest bound to cause upset is another matter.

If you would like any further advice regarding wills and inheritance disputes please get in touch with our team directly or fill in the enquiry form below.