A white bishop lies on it’s side on a chess board

Family loses legal battle over geographic error in Will

Last week the media reported on a court battle over a disputed Will which arose due to a geographic error. Here we look at the importance of correctly describing assets in Wills.

Last week’s Daily Telegraph brought us news of a disputed Will in which the testator, a Mr Michael Crowley-Milling, had left most of his assets in the “United Kingdom” to the Royal Society. Mr Crowley-Milling held approximately half of his £2.1 million estate in Bank accounts in Jersey and the Isle of Man. Legally, neither Jersey nor the Isle of Man are within the United Kingdom, although they do form part of the geographic area of the British Isles.

Mr Crowley-Milling’s surviving family argued that he had not intended to give the Jersey and Isle of Mann assets to the Royal Society but the Society disputed that claim. Ultimately the High Court decided that Mr Crowley-Milling had simply made an error and that the intended recipient of the offshore accounts was the Royal Society.

No doubt the estate has been depleted by the inevitable legal costs that must have been incurred in reaching this conclusion and this case clearly illustrates the need to identify which assets the Will is intended to dispose of and where these are situated. Similarly, care has to be taken over the description of assets left by the Will.

Geography is a key concern as, depending on its location, real property may be dealt with by the succession law governing the country where it is situated rather than by the succession law of the testator’s domicile or nationality. It may therefore be necessary to have two Wills, one dealing with property in England and Wales and one dealing with property situated elsewhere.

If Mr Crowley-Milling had described the offshore assets by their bank account names and numbers, on the face of it there would have been no dispute over the Will (but if the bank account had been closed by the time of his death then problems would still have arisen as the gift in the Will would then fail altogether).

Similarly, it is important to ensure accuracy over the identification of beneficiaries. Many people may, for example, refer to their spouse’s nephews and nieces as their nephews and nieces when legally this is not the case; they should be referred to by name in the Will rather than described by reference to their relationship to the testator.

Another Will hit the headlines last year when the late Joan Edwards, a lady from Bristol, left her estate to “whichever Government is in office at the date of my death for the Government at their absolute discretion to use as they think fit.” This imprecise gift was interpreted by Miss Edward’s executors as a gift to the political parties in power at the date of Miss Edward’s death and her estate was divided between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. From there it made its way into party funds, was disclosed as a donation in public records and then reported on the front pages of the papers.

Ultimately, of course, the Conservatives and LibDems handed the money over to the Treasury as it was felt that this was more in keeping with Miss Edward’s wishes, although whether Miss Edwards anticipated her estate being swallowed up in reducing the national debt is also unknown.

A Will is a document that deals with your entire wealth accumulated over a lifetime and thus it is important that time is taken to make sure that it is as accurate as possible to avoid the sort of problems that occurred in the case of the late Mr Crowley-Milling and in relation to Miss Edward’s Will. Sufficient care, and professional advice, should ensure that, after your death, your estate is not depleted in order to establish exactly what you intended.

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