Increase in legacies in wills, increase in legacy disputes?
A Will can be contested on the basis that it is invalid by relying on one or more of the following grounds:
The Will has not been correctly executed.
If a Will appears rational then there is a presumption that the testator had mental capacity and the Will will be admitted to probate unless anyone can produce sufficient evidence to the contrary.
In 2017 there was widespread press reporting of a purported validity claim mounted by various charities in relation to the estate of Tracey Leaning. Under a will executed in 2007 Ms Leaning bequeathed her entire estate to four charities, the Dogs Trust, Friends of the Animals, World Animal Protection and Heart Research but in 2014 a new will was produced leaving her estate to her partner Richard Guest on the condition that he cared for her three dogs. The new will is said to have been handwritten and the signature page separate from the other pages giving rise to concern from the charities. Negative reporting in relation to this case was rife. The Daily Mail ran the headline “Animal charities take grieving man to court” and Mr Guest appeared on ITV’s This Morning to talk about the case. In August 2017 Dogs Trust put out the following statement:
“All the charities are trying to do is follow Ms Leaning’s last wishes. This means making sure her last Will is valid and unfortunately for Mr Guest the legal process means that this is down to him to prove. We understand this is a sensitive situation but as charities we have a legal obligation to ensure that gifts left to us are followed up, so that last wishes can be fulfilled.
We understand the dogs are very happy in Mr Guest’s care and this has been agreed by Ms Leaning’s family. We have no plans to change this arrangement – and our support is there if needed.
Background to this case:
Ms Leaning had a Will drafted by her solicitor in 2007 leaving her estate to four charities.
A handwritten document has come to light from 2014, written eight months before her death.
This was not reported to Ms Leaning’s solicitor.
Contrary to statements in the press, the charities have not begun court proceedings in respect of the validity of the Will.
Whenever anyone dies their last Will needs to be proved. This is a standard process and only the probate registry or the court can decide the outcome.”
It is not known what the final outcome of the dispute was but the mainstream reporting of the case before proceedings were even issued demonstrates how important it is for a charity to give careful thought to how they deal with even a potential legacy dispute. Mishandling matters at any early stage could give rise to an otherwise avoidable fallout that irreparably damages the public’s perception of a charity.
Katherine is a member of the Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS) and an affiliate of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). She obtained a distinction in the STEP Advanced Certificate in Trust Disputes and is recommended in the Legal 500 in the field of Contentious Trusts and Probate.
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