Making sure one’s property is divided up according to one’s wishes after death needs careful planning. It’s not good enough to just leave a letter. Even a properly constructed Will may not be sufficient especially if you have property outside England and Wales.Darren Hendleman, Head of our Private Client Team says: “The very recent judgement in the case involving the estate of the late Bernard Matthews, the turkey baron shows how difficult things can get.”
In the case Mr Matthews left property in England and France. In broad terms, he left the bulk of his English estate to his natural son, George, and a French chateau to a woman he had lived with for over 20 years. He also left a letter addressed to 3 adopted children and George requesting them to forgo their rights under French law to a share in the French chateau as he wished his live-in partner to own the chateau outright. However, the three adopted children (who had earlier benefitted from asset transfers while Mr Matthews was alive) chose to ignore this request and exercised their inheritance rights under French law. They then further sued the English estate to pay the inheritance tax due, as Mr Matthews had inserted a clause in his English will instructing that the tax be paid, (clearly intending this to mean the lady in question would not have to find the money).
Whilst the courts were in no position to effect Mr Matthews’s broad intention to see his partner inherit the chateau all by herself, as French law is quite unambiguous, the English court did hold that Mr Matthews would not have intended that his English estate should pay the children’s inheritance tax in the event that they ignored his wishes and exercised their inheritance rights under French law. Darren comments: “As clear a case as you could find that relying on family goodwill is an unwise thing to do. Mr Matthews should have had a far more legally watertight arrangement set up” This is particularly importand where you have property in foreign countries, where the Law relating to propery succession can be very different to herer. If you feel you may need advice, Smith Sutcliffe can advise you. Speak to a member of our Private Client Team on 01282 426251 for further advice.