Increase in legacies in Wills, increase in legacy disputes?

Part 4 - Will Construction

18 July 2019

Part 4 of our charitable legacy disputes series looks at Will construction claims.

The law

A will construction claim arises where there is a dispute concerning the wording, or meaning of wording, in a will.

Case study

An interesting will construction case involving a charity is that of Vucicevic v Aleksic [2017] EWHC 2335 where the High Court ruled on the construction of a handwritten will.

The testator, Mr Veljiko Aleksic was born in Montenegro on 19 March 1923, arriving in England shortly after the Second World War where he died on 24 October 2014. Mr Aleksic had houses in London and Cardiff and land in Montenegro (co-owned with two of his brothers). His will was undated and contained no attestation clause (one of the two attesting witnesses consequently made an affadivit attesting due execution to have taken place towards the end of 2012). The will made no express provision for the appointment of an executor but appointed a senior bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church to “be in charge”. The Probate Registry declined to accept that the bishop had been appointed as an executor. There was no previous will. 

The will contained numerous spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and misplaced punctuation.   Mr Justice Matthews said “Bad English can still make a good will, as long as the testator's meaning can be understood”. He relied on multiple sources of evidence, including a forensic document examiner and an expert in the law of Montenegro, to make sense of ambiguous words phrases and establish what the testator intended.

The deceased included a legacy of £10,000 in the Will to “Brit. Cancer Research”. In the absence of any such organisation and no reported connection with a UK cancer charity, an application was made to the Attorney General’s Office for the proceeds to be disposed of under the Royal Sign Manual. The Royal Sign Manual literally means signature of the monarch (who delegated her power to dispose of charitable gifts to the Attorney General in 1986) and applies where a gift has been made to charity but the identity of that charity is unclear. The legacy was subsequently divided between a selection of British cancer related research charities.

 

Top tips for charities

  • Encourage supporters to instruct qualified professionals to prepare their wills.
  • The Royal Sign Manual cannot be used to resolve a dispute over the validity or construction of a Will.

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