Inheritance (Episode 1)

Published on 26 Sep 2023

The first episode of a new series called “Inheritance Wars - Who Gets the Money?” aired on Sunday 17 September on Channel 5. It is a fact-based programme which examines inheritance cases that have been decided by the courts, including interviews with the original parties and their lawyers; there are also comments from a clinical psychologist on the psychological impact of these cases on the parties and their effect on family relationships.

This first episode dealt with two inheritance cases. The first one was a case which, uniquely, went all the way to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. It related to an application for the rectification of two wills belonging to a married couple (Mr and Mrs Rawling) who had mistakenly signed each other’s wills because their solicitor, at a meeting, had accidentally handed them each other’s will to sign.

Mr and Mrs Rawling had two sons, to whom they were not close. While the sons were growing up, Mr and Mrs Rawlings informally adopted a friend of one of their sons and took him in to live in their home. His name was Mr Marley. While the sons left home in due course, Mr Marley continued to live with Mr and Mrs Rawlings and later became their carer.

The programme went on to explain that Mr and Mrs Rawlings made a life-time gift of their home, worth about £400,000, to Mr Marley. They also made “mirror” wills, leaving the rest of their assets, said to be £70,000, to Mr Marley. The couple did not leave anything at all to their two sons.

When it was discovered that Mr and Mrs Rawlings had mistakenly signed each other’s wills, Mr Marley made an application to the High Court for rectification of the wills. The application was made against Mr and Mrs Rawlings’ sons, to whom the estates would pass on intestacy. Mr Marley, the beneficiary in the wills, argued that the wills should be rectified to give effect to the true intentions of Mr and Mrs Rawlings.

Section 9 of the Wills Act 1837 states that no will is valid unless it is in writing, is signed by the testator, or by some other person in his presence and by his direction, and it appears that the testator intended by his signature to give effect to the will.

The Administration of Justice Act 1982, section 20, enables the court to rectify a will to give effect to the testator’s instructions if a mistake has been made, either by way of a “clerical error” or because of a failure to understand the testator’s instructions.

At the High Court, the view was taken that Mr and Mrs Rawlings could not have intended to sign each other’s wills. Therefore, section 9 of the Wills Act 1837 was not fulfilled in relation to intention. It was also determined that the mistake with regard to Mr and Rawlings’ wills could not be rectified because what had happened could not correctly be described as a clerical error (relating to the wording of the will), or a failure to understand their instructions. The wills were therefore invalid.

The case was then appealed to the Court of Appeal, which upheld the decision of the High Court. The wills were invalid.

Marley then obtained permission to appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. The decision of the Supreme Court, on 18 September 2014, was that the wills could be rectified, using section 20 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982, to allow the wills to be read as though Mr and Mrs Rawlings had each signed the correct will. This decision effectively widened the scope of the meaning of “clerical error”, which is not defined in the Act. The Supreme Court thereby enabled the wishes of Mr and Mrs Rawlings to be fulfilled. The programme commented that this was the result that the man and woman on the street would have expected.

The costs of the legal proceedings, including two appeals, were very substantial. Since the litigation essentially arose out of a mistake made by Mr and Rawlings’ solicitor, in handing them both the wrong wills to sign, the Supreme Court ordered that the solicitors’ insurers should pay most of the legal costs. The general rule is that the loser pays the winner’s costs, but this case was considered by the Supreme Court to be an exception to that rule because of the negligence on the part of Mr and Mrs Rawlings’ solicitor.

The second case featured an inheritance dispute relating to the estate of Bernard Matthews, the well-known former Norfolk turkey farmer. His estate was said to be worth millions of pounds and included an expensive property in France. We were told that Mr Mathews had three adopted children with his wife and a biological child with a different mother. He also had a partner in France who had cared for him during his various illnesses.

Mr Matthews had made wills dealing with his English and French assets. His English will left his English assets to his biological child.

Mr Matthews’ French will provided for his French property to pass to his French partner. However, although he provided for his partner to inherit his property in France, French law dictates that the children of the deceased will inherit a substantial part of the deceased’s French property. French succession law is very different to English succession law. Mr Matthews had apparently been warned by his lawyers that his will may not be honoured by his children because of French succession law. Mr Matthews’ adopted children did not agree to uphold their father’s wishes, as expressed in his French will. The result was that they had to pay a substantial amount of tax on their father’s French property because by choosing to take the property they had to pay the tax burden that went with it.

Unlike in the first case mentioned above, involving rectification of a will, in the second case Mr Matthews’ intentions were not fulfilled.

Tune in next week….

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