Spotlight: Probate challenges of blended families – a case by Kellie Williams-Jauvel

News - 01/03/2016

A widower (“Thomas”) was recently subject to a claim made by the children of his deceased second wife’s (“Violet”) adult children from her first marriage.

The background

My client, Thomas, had lived for 20 years in the marital home (“Greenacres”) he had shared with his first wife and in which they raised their children. At the time of his first wife’s death Greenacres was mortgage free. My client married again and he and his second wife, Violet, who owned her own property, shared Greenacres with him until her death seven years later. Greenacres remained solely in Thomas’ name throughout the time of his marriage to Violet.

Thomas and Violet had separate wills dividing their estates and leaving them to their respective children from their first marriages. This is not uncommon with second marriages.

Instinctively one might think that the outcome here would be for each of the children to benefit from their own parent’s estate. This view was not shared by Violet’s adult children.

Instead, Violet’s children made a claim for an interest in Greenacres notwithstanding the fact that they had inherited their mother’s substantial estate. They claimed that as their mother had funded some renovation work to the garden, there was an intention that she was to have a share of the property. They calculated this to be approximately £360,000. During Violet’s life she had never sought an interest in Greenacres and had carried out the renovations so that she and her husband could enjoy the garden in their twilight years.

The Problem

•There was never any “irrefutable expression” as to what would happen to assets that were accumulated by Thomas and Violet prior to their marriage, but to which they both contributed after marriage.
•It is not uncommon for there to be a lack of empathy between adult children from first marriages and a new spouse, which drives this type of litigation. It is notable that the children and our client had never had a cross word during Violet’s life.

What happened?

Our client understandably wanted to avoid litigation at a time when he was grieving. What cleared the way to a resolution was our ability to help our client by applying the law on the Common Intention Trust and Proprietory Estoppel. There is a legal presumption that “he who owes the legal title to the property will own it outright” which Violet’s children had to disturb in order to succeed in a claim to “Greenacres”. To prove their claim, Violet’s children would have had to show that their mother had relied on a shared intention between her and her husband that she should have a financial interest in Greenacres and that as a result of that reliance, she had suffered a detriment. The children could not make out that shared intention.

It is imperative that people in these situations think about what is to happen to assets that predate a second marriage but are maintained by them both in some way after marriage. It was clear that this matter needed to be resolved as quickly as possible, outside of court and without further damage to the wider family. It was important to balance Thomas’ emotional well-being and the financial impact on him of any settlement. I negotiated tactfully but firmly with Violet’s children and was able to secure an early settlement with the children’s solicitors, which saw my client making a payment, but far less than that which had been claimed.

For contested wills and probate disputes contact Kellie Williams-Jauvel at [email protected] or 020 8971 1031.

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