Inheritance disputes – a tale of two stories – Gold-diggers and misers
Inheritance disputes continue to regularly appear in the press and whilst that often involves celebrities, there has been a notable increase in stories about the moderately well off.
This trend almost certainly reflects that many people in the latter years of their life have accumulated property wealth and as they become more vulnerable they can become victim to predatory wealth hunters from both outside and inside their family.
The case of Marcel Chu appearing in the Sun recently is a classic case. His original will left his estate to his family, but in a death bed will organised by his carer he then left 40% of his estate to her. It is of no surprise that sudden will changes in favour of carers tend to upset the family and all the more so when done shortly before death shrouded in a veil of secrecy.
The press report not only shows that there were grave concerns about Mr Chu’s mental capacity when he made the deathbed will, which would be enough to raise a challenge, but after several years of the carer blocking family access, it appears that she held the dying man’s hand to guide it when he signed the will.
It may come as a surprise to non-lawyers that someone can help another sign a will, but the key issue is the signature of the person making the will, even if poor, must be theirs and they must make a physical and discernible contribution to the signing process. This is not an ideal way of executing a will, even in genuine circumstances and there are better ways to proceed, preferably with the assistance of a solicitor. Needless to say in the Chu case the “assistance” was on the wrong side of genuine assistance.
Justice was served in this case because the will was declared void by the court and the “carer” was hit with an £85,000 costs bill.
Not all the elderly are vulnerable and some leave the most deliberately mean and upsetting wills. Step forward the case of a millionaire aged 94 at date of death which again made the national press who left his partner of 42 years without a penny.
Here the deceased decided to leave all his estate to tenants who he was on good terms with and who had helped him out over the years. It would of course be a decent thing to do to leave them something, but excluding a life partner is always going to lead to problems quite apart from the upset.
Where there is an otherwise valid will, it can still be challenged by family and dependants where they have been left financially high and dry. Here the courts have the power to rightfully adjust the terms of the will under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
The partner here had the good sense to take appropriate legal advice and whilst she didn’t get all of the estate, she was awarded a cottage on it outright and a large cash sum for refurbishment and reasonable financial support.
What may not be initially appreciated by the parties in this type of case is that the will beneficiaries and the excluded parties, with a valid claim, can in fact re-write the terms of the will by agreeing what is called a deed of variation. When we are dealing with cases of this type, we always strongly encourage the parties to adopt a good sense approach with the aim of agreeing such a deed. That can save, not only a lot of stress and upset, but potentially significant costs.
In this jurisdiction we have what is known as “freedom of testamentary expression”. That means you can leave your estate as you please, unlike some European countries, where inheritance is subject to fixed rules. Where however the expression is not given freely, the will is vulnerable to being declared void. Sadly will fraud and carer abuse seems to be on the up looking at the amount of press coverage. If this affects you then seeking early advice is vital to protect the estate and genuine beneficiaries.
The question of freedom of testamentary expression doesn’t of course always mean that it is given wisely or with reasonable consideration for your family. Whilst you are free to give all your money away to anyone or any charity you like, if that is done to the detriment of close family or dependants then there is the safety net of the Inheritance Act for them to call upon. Spouse claims, like the one above, are relatively unusual, but more common are co-habitees who leave no will and the house is in the name of one party. There are no automatic inheritance rules and the surviving party can be left in financial difficulties unless they realise that they can make a claim under the Act. These claims must be made within 6 months of the grant of probate so it is really important to seek prompt advice if this has affected you.