There is often a lot to handle when someone dies. Unfortunately, sometimes legal disputes within the family can increase these difficulties – especially if the effect of the deceased’s wishes (or the consequences of dying without a Will) is unexpected or unwelcome.
A case recently reported by the Daily Mail highlighted a range of such issues. Its circumstances are packed with the kind of details that tabloids thrive upon.
The case involved the estate of Dr Jean Weddell, who died in 2013, aged 84. At the time of her death, she had been living with her civil partner, Ms Wendy Cook. The couple became civil partners in 2007, and, in 2010, Dr Weddell sold her house in Kennington, South London, (for £710,000) to move in with Ms Cook on the Isle of Wight. The details in the news reports are hazy but it seems Dr Weddell gifted most of the proceeds of the sale to Ms Cook during her lifetime, to the extent that when Dr Weddell died, there remained only £5,000 in her estate.
Dispute arose from Dr Weddell’s son, Christopher Gosden, who is Professor of European Archaeology at Oxford University. Professor Gosden had been given up for adoption by his mother shortly after his birth, but they had re-established their relationship in 1987. Professor Gosden claimed that following this, his mother “had resolved” to leave her Kennington house to him after she died. He had been unaware that the house had been sold by his mother until some years later.
However, Professor Gosden’s claim was not made against Dr Weddell’s estate. His claim was against the solicitors who had set up a trust for Dr Weddell in 2003. This trust, Professor Gosden argued, was intended to pass on the house, or proceeds from its sale, to him and his family in a way which would reduce the inheritance tax Dr Weddell’s estate would pay on her death.
Professor Gosden argued that this trust had been drawn up incorrectly, because it allowed his mother to sell her house during her lifetime and give away the sale proceeds to Ms Cook, when it should have protected the sale proceeds for him and his family.
Unfortunately for Professor Gosden and his family, the High Court dismissed his claim. Whilst it seems that the judge accepted that the solicitors could have done more to protect Professor Gosden’s rights as a trustee and beneficiary, their conduct had not caused him to ‘miss out’ on receiving the house’s value. The judge held that Dr Weddell had had the mental capacity to choose what to do with her house and its proceeds at the time she sold it. It was ultimately Dr Weddell’s choice that had caused his ‘loss’, which the judge found she could have made even if Professor Gosden had been aware of the sale.
Could the situation have been disputed in another way?
The case raises a number of interesting legal points for contested probate actions and Will challenges. These kinds of claim are normally made against the estate at the centre of the dispute, with the claimants seeking money from that estate. In relation to Dr Weddell’s estate, as mentioned above, only £5,000 was left at the time of her death, meaning there would be little point in claiming from the estate. Putting that to one side, however, the facts of this case may still be helpful in explaining how some Will and estate disputes work in reality.
Estate disputes often follow someone being disinherited, or receiving less from a person’s estate than they expect. Someone facing this situation might have several ways in which they can challenge it. They might be able to:
- Rely on promises made by the deceased during their lifetime. This is based on a legal principle called ‘proprietary estoppel’;
- Challenge the validity of a Will which has been made. This can be done on a number of different grounds, but most commonly it will be that the deceased did not have mental capacity to make their Will at the time. Another basis for challenging a Will is that the person was unduly influenced by someone else when making it;
- Bring a claim for reasonable financial provision from the deceased person’s estate. This is based on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 and so is often referred to as an IPFDA claim.
In Professor Gosden’s claim, he stated that his mother “had resolved” to leave her house to him and his family. Could this have amounted to a legally enforceable promise?
In the circumstances it seems very unlikely. Assuming that a court accepted Dr Weddell had made such a promise, for proprietory estoppel to work, Professor Gosden must have relied on this promise and, in doing so, suffered some kind of detriment. From the reported facts, it seems this was not the case.
If you would like to know more about this legal principle, our blog post on proprietary estoppel contains more detail.
Challenging the validity of a Will and mental capacity
If someone challenging a Will successfully proves it is invalid, its terms will no longer have any effect. This means that an earlier Will could take effect instead or, if there is no earlier Will, the person who died will be considered to have died intestate. As mentioned above, claims that a Will is invalid are often argued on the basis that the deceased did not have mental capacity at the time they made the Will.
In Professor Gosden’s claim, the terms of Dr Weddell’s Will were not the issue, but Dr Weddell’s mental capacity when she made the lifetime transfers of her property’s sale proceeds was relevant. It is important to remember that mental capacity is not a question of whether someone makes a ‘good’ decision, or one that we would necessarily agree with; Professor Gosden would certainly have disagreed with Dr Weddell’s decision to give the sale proceeds to Ms Cook. Mental capacity is a question of whether the decision-maker can understand what they are doing and the implications of it.
More information on mental capacity can be found in our factsheet on this topic.
An IPFDA claim
In general, IPFDA claims can be brought by certain family members, and/or people who were financially dependent on the deceased. Professor Gosden was Dr Weddell’s son. Although they had spent much of their lives separate from each other, in the widely reported case of Ilott v Mitson, such circumstances did not prevent an estranged daughter from receiving money from her late mother’s estate.
However, Professor Gosden had been given up for adoption by Dr Weddell. Under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (section 67 in particular), adopted children are legally treated as having been born of their adoptive parents. Additionally, adopted children are no longer legally treated as children of their natural parents. As such, Professor Gosden would have had no standing on which to bring any IPFDA claim.
For more information on IPFDA claims, have a look at our factsheet: ‘Excluding Someone from your Will’.
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