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The Winner Takes It All

by Ridley&Hall in Inheritance & will disputes, Sarah Young posted May 30, 2022.

The winner takes it all, the loser’s standing small, beside the victory, that’s her destiny” : neatly sums up the outcome of a long running inheritance dispute between Diana Dale-Gough and her stepchildren over the estate of her late husband Peter, who died in August 2013.

Under the terms of a will he had made in 2005, Peter Dale-Gough left half of his property, in his sole name, worth £800,000 to his wife. The other half was left equally between his children, Ben and Mary-Jane. Diana was given a ‘life interest’ in the property which meant that she was entitled to live there as long as she wanted after Peter’s death. 

In what was clearly a misjudged attempt to claim more than the half share she had been left, Diana (71)  brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. The Act is an important statute which allows someone close to, or financially dependent on, someone who has died, to bring a claim against their estate. 

Many of us would instinctively feel uncomfortable about the idea of a will not being adhered to, but the reality is that without the Act, there would be a great deal of injustice. For example, as the law stands, you could have lived with someone for 20 years before their death, but if they either hadn’t made a will, or the only will in existence was made before you met –  you’d get nothing. The Inheritance Act is an important safety net for those who ought to have been provided for. 

So, was Diana entitled to bring a claim under the Act? Yes; as a surviving spouse she was allowed to argue that her husband’s will failed to make ‘reasonable financial provision’ for her.

But – just because she was entitled to claim, didn’t mean that she would win. The facts in every case are different, and it’s often very difficult to predict the outcome. However, the judge has to pay regard to a number of factors, set out at section 3 of the Act in coming to a decision. In addition, the wishes of the deceased must be given consideration; here, Peter clearly wished to make some provision for his children. The judge also had to weigh up the ‘deemed divorce test’; what would Diana have been likely to receive if the marriage had ended by divorce rather than by death?

A ‘life interest’ in a property is increasingly seen as sufficient provision for a surviving spouse, especially where, as here, there is substantial equity in the property. 

If she had needed to release cash from the property, Diana could easily have either got an equity release loan in respect of her half share, or it was open to her to sell the 4 bedroomed property and buy somewhere smaller, and perhaps more suitable for her needs with her £400,000 share. By deciding instead to bring a claim against the estate (effectively against Peter’s adult children Ben and Mary-Jane) Diana took an expensive and high-risk approach which backfired, when her claim was dismissed in 2020. 

She was ordered to pay Ben and Mary-Jane’s legal costs which including interest, now come to around £100,000. Having failed to pay those costs, the case has recently returned to court. Deputy Master Marsh criticised Diana for failing to file documents and to co-operate in paying the legal fees. He ordered that the house be sold and commented that the debt had arisen as a ‘direct consequence of the manner in which she conducted the Inheritance Act proceedings’.

The lessons to take away from this case, other than that ‘rules must be obeyed, the judges will decide’ are that:

  • It does not automatically follow that because someone is entitled to bring a claim under the Inheritance Act, they will succeed in their claim.
  • Emotions  – as well as costs – run high in will dispute case. Specialist, pragmatic legal advice is essential.
  • Even if you think you have a strong claim, you should always seek to negotiate an out of court settlement as legal costs can quickly escalate once court proceedings are issued.
  • If you lose or withdraw a claim, settle the costs as quickly as possible, as interest will be added and can quickly increase a debt.
Sarah Young

Sarah Young – Director & Solicitor

 

 

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