A recent judgement passed in High Court could clarify the law on inheritance for cohabitees.
As the law stands, there is no such thing as a ‘common law’ spouse. So if you live together, but are not married or in a Civil Partnership, you have no automatic right to financial support, property or assets if you split up, although any children may.
The law does, however, allow a claim for provision to be made from an estate by long-term cohabitees or dependents if the deceased might have been expected to provide for them.
In the recent case of Thompson v Raggott, the High Court ruled in favour of Joan Thompson’s claim for reasonable financial provision out of the estate of her late partner, Wynford Hodge.
Mr Hodge, worth 1.5 million, left nothing for Mrs Thompson or her four children. He felt that three of her children had taken advantage of him during his lifetime and instead left the estate to his friends – who were also tenants at one of his properties.
In a Letter of Wishes with his Will, Mr Hodge stated that as he had previously been Joan’s main carer, it was unlikely that she would continue to live in his home independently. This and the fact that she ‘has her own savings and is financially comfortable’, led him to feel that he shouldn’t make any provision for her.
What the court thought
In court, Mrs Thompson claimed she had been financially dependent on her late partner and had lived with him for approximately 42 years.
The relevant “reasonable provisions” considered were:
- Joan’s financial resources
- Financial needs of friends named under the Will
- Obligations and responsibilities the deceased owed to Joan
- Joan’s disabilities
- The size/nature of the estate.
In this case; Joan’s age (79), her long period of cohabitation and her efforts looking after both the home and Mr Hodge’s mother were considered by the court.
Following evidence from her GP, Mrs Thompson then made it clear that she was in fact well enough to live at home alone, with an appropriate care package. Her claim was also supported by the fact that one of Mr Hodge’s properties had been purchased for the couple to move into after retirement.
With this in mind, the court decided to provide an outright transfer of the property to Mrs Thompson, rather than holding it on trust with a lifetime interest.
Her long period of cohabitation and the fact that her children would provide care in the future were influential factors in this decision. Any future decisions regarding the property were then able to take place without permission; allowing a clean break between the parties.
Whilst maintenance costs were provided for Mrs Thompson, the majority of the estate was still left with Mr Hodge’s friends.
So, although the wishes in Mr Hodge’s Will, were not to make provision for his family, the courts decided that this should not hinder the reasonable provision for Mrs Thompson’s maintenance.
In reflection, this case demonstrates the importance of seeking specialist legal advice at the point of making a Will. It’s also equally crucial to consider a cohabitation agreement, which protects your estate from claims that can be very expensive to resolve.
Posted on May 9, 2018