News has broken that singer songwriter Sir Elton John has been snubbed by his late Mother, Sheila Farebrother, after she decided not to make him a major beneficiary of her estate.
The pair may have had a strained relationship, but had reportedly settled their differences. Nevertheless only three weeks before her death Sheila made her last Will which left Elton no more than a couple of urns and a few photographs from her £500,000 estate.
The legal precedent
It is a long-held belief that under English Law you have the right to leave your assets to whoever you wish upon your death. Many a Will has resulted in a considerable donation to a charity or an unrelated friend whilst a child, spouse or partner of the deceased has received nothing.
So, Sir Elton’s is an all too familiar story as increasing numbers of people seemingly elect to make no provision for their offspring or spouses/partners when they die.
What can the disinherited do?
While commonly held, it’s important to remember that the notion that we can leave our assets to whoever we wish is not strictly true – Mrs Farebrother is at liberty to make the choices she did, but there is the potential to challenge it.
The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows a disgruntled child, spouse or partner to make a claim against the estate. Though that is not to say that every claim under the Act will be successful. For a spouse or partner’s claim to succeed they would need to prove that the Will failed to provide for their reasonable financial provision, whether it is required for their maintenance or not.
Whilst it is not necessarily a high bar to achieve a court will consider the individual facts of each case; a husband who is financially dependant upon his wife at the time of her death is far more likely to have a successful claim than a millionaire business woman who was financially independent and separated from her husband at the time of his death.
The Act sets the bar for a successful claim for a child a little higher. A child will need to show that a parent’s Will failed to make reasonable financial provision for their maintenance and therefore a child who has been financially independent for many years is unlikely to have a successful claim. It’s fairly clear that Sir Elton – who’s ‘net worth’ in the region of £350 million – does not have a case on these grounds.
Claiming through court
This is however a very broad brush analysis of the Act and each case is of course looked at individually. Whilst the ultimate test is whether or not a Will made reasonable financial provision for the individual claiming there are other factors the Court must consider when faced with an ‘Inheritance Act Claim’. These include the financial resources in the future for the claimant, the size of the estate and the financial needs of other beneficiaries. The Act even provides for the Court to consider any other matter that it sees as relevant.
Could age be a factor?
Whilst it does not quite have the tabloid pull of Sir Elton being ‘snubbed’ by his mother there is a further important point to the story that some tabloids seemingly failed to spot.
It is reported that Sheila made her last Will just three weeks before her death at the age of 92 in December last year. Whilst the timing of making the Will and her age may be irrelevant to Sir Elton’s late mother, that is not always the case.
It is certainly not uncommon for a Will to be made only weeks before a person dies, it may be they are terminally ill or simply that their death was untimely. However, in other cases it may be that the person was coerced or forced into making the Will at a time when they were extremely vulnerable or suffered from periods of confusion.
At the same time there is no age limit to making a Will and again it is not uncommon for a person to make a succession of perfectly valid Wills throughout their lifetime and sometimes shortly before death. However, for a person’s Will to be legally valid they must be of sound mind at the time it is made and fully understand the consequences of making the Will.
What is required to successfully challenge a WIll?
If a deceased’s Will is successfully challenged because either:
- They lacked the mental capacity to make it;
- Were forced into it or did not understand what they were doing; or
- It was not properly executed, i.e. it was incorrectly drafted or signed
then their estate will be distributed in accordance with either the rules of intestacy (where there is no Will) or their most recent Will prior to the one which is challenged.
Natasha Guest is an Associate Solicitor within Berwins’ Dispute Resolution team. She has extensive experience in supporting families and individuals with will or inheritance disputes as well as other disagreements which can arise after someone has passed away.
If you are concerned about the way an estate is being dealt with, or that you have not received a share of an estate that you believe you are entitled to, contact Berwins' expert team on 01423 543 102 or via email@example.com to discuss your options.