Inheritance Battle over ‘secret trust’
The Daily Mail has today reported on a case currently in the High Court involving a “bitter inheritance fight” brought by Julia Titcombe in relation to the £6m estate of her late aunt, Patricia Thompson.
The argument between her and the sole beneficiary of the estate, Neil Ison who was a close friend of the deceased is an interesting one. This is because it is, unusually, not a challenge to the validity of the will but rather a claim just in relation to the deceased’s ‘family jewels’ valued at £150,000.
Julia Titcombe, 46, says her rich and ‘unconventional’ aunt promised her treasured £150,000 jewellery collection to her in a Skype call before she died.
But when Ms Thompson died in Monte Carlo in February 2015, she left her entire estate to her friend Neil Ison, 54, with no mention in her will of what was to happen to her jewellery collection.
Although the newspaper report doesn’t refer in detail to the legal issues in dispute it is likely that the niece is claiming that a ‘secret trust’ was created.
What is a secret trust? Simply put, a trust can be described as a relationship created at the direction of an individual, in which one or more persons hold the individual’s property subject to certain duties to use and protect it for the benefit of others. The person who holds the property for another’s benefit is called a ‘trustee’ and the person who benefits from the trust is the ‘beneficiary’.
In a fully secret trust, the will does not reveal that a trust exists at all. It is simply that there has been an earlier agreement between the maker of the will and the trustee(s) during their lifetime.
Secret trusts cases are unusual. In Victorian times, men who had a mistress and illegitimate children wanted to be able to provide for them without their legitimate family finding out about them after their death. A secret trust provided an opportunity for them to retain a veneer of respectability after death while providing for those they felt a moral responsibility towards.
Generally speaking, it’s not a course of action that would be recommended because the will maker is relying heavily on his or her trustees to do what they are asked to do after their death.
In this case, the niece Julia Titcombe, has given evidence that she and her aunt had a video call on Skype when the deceased told her that she was re-writing her will and that she wanted Julia to have her jewellery. She said that she wanted Mr Ison to pass jewellery to her on her birthdays and at Christmas. It’s claimed that Mr Ison was present on the call.
Mr Ison says that the jewellery was left to him on the clear understanding that he alone would decide what to do with it.
It is a classic case of ‘he says, she says’ and unless there is other supportive evidence, it is difficult to see that a Judge will find in Julia Titcombe’s favour. She has risked a lot to argue that £150,000 of family jewels should stay in the family; if she loses she is likely to have to bear not only her own legal costs but all of those incurred by Mr Ison as well.
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