A recent family dispute between two stepsisters ended in a court battle and a hefty bill for the losing side. The case is a reminder of why both having Wills in place is so important for couples.
Family arguments arise too often after a loved one passes away. Emotions are already high and adding the pressure of wanting to make sure their wishes are carried out exactly how you think they would have wanted, only makes things harder. This is particularly so where things are not set out in a legally binding document (their Will), and family members disagree on what the deceased would have wanted.
By writing a Will you can relieve this pressure for your family. You set out exactly what you want. This can help avoid heart-breaking fallouts and disputes, which may tear your family apart during a time they may well need each other the most.
A recent family dispute case
Tragically, a couple were found dead in their Essex bungalow some time after they died of hypothermia. Assets to be inherited included a £300,000 home and modest savings – both jointly owned so taken by the survivor.
Each spouse had children, not with each other, who inherited their respective parent’s estate.
Joint property – The law
In these circumstances, the law states that the blood family of the spouse who survived the longest inherits their joint assets – in this case, around £310,000.
The stepsisters both had arguments as to whose parent they believed died first. The issue couldn’t be resolved between the two sides so, the matter went to the High Court for a judge to decide.
The Law of Property Act 1925 – “simultaneous deaths”
The ‘Commorientes Rule’ (meaning “simultaneous deaths”), under the s84 Law of Property Act 1925 says that in cases where it cannot be determined who died first, it should be presumed that the younger person outlived the elder.
There was scientific evidence to suggest that the wife died first as her body was more decomposed than her husband’s. However, this was inconclusive as the rate of decomposition could have been due to the micro-environments in which the bodies were in – her body was found in the bathroom whereas his was in the lounge.
The judge applied the presumption that the older of the two, the husband, died first, so the wife’s children inherited the whole £310,000 estate.
Avoiding a family dispute – Key takeaways
- If the parents had discussed their Wills with each other and both put Wills in place after taking legal advice, the family dispute may have been avoided.
- Discussions and advice must cover whether it is better to hold property as joint tenants where the survivor inherits it all, or as tenants in common where your share passes under your Will, and what happens if you die together.
- Court battles are not the only option. In this case, the families did attempt to settle the matter outside of court by dividing the assets between them however, they couldn’t reach an agreement. It is believed that the losing party turned down an offer to share the estate. There is never certainty of outcome in court.
- If you do go to court, prepare to pay the bill! In this case, the losing side was ordered to pay their opposition’s legal costs, as well as their own. This was an eye-watering £150,000.
If you would like to discuss any of these issues, please contact a member of our Private Client team. We have expertise in Wills, trusts, probate and estate planning, and all related disputes. Speak to us on 0115 9 100 200, or send an email to find out how we can help you.
Posted on August 30, 2019