Verbal Legacies/Death Bed Gifts

We recently published an article in relation to, Promissory Estoppel or Proprietary Estoppel as it is sometimes called, where by a verbal promise a gift can be relied on and enforced.

This area of Probate Administration has further been clarified by a recent Court of Appeal decision, overturning a High Court decision, to grant a man who cared for his elderly aunt in her final years, her £350,000 home.

Animal charities Redwings Horse Sanctuary, and Chiltern’s Dog Rescue Society, were named as beneficiaries of a Mrs June Fairbrother’s will.

In 2004, a High Court ruling based on a little known rule docterim of ‘Donatio Mortis Causa’.

Mrs Fairbrother had verbally gifted her property to her nephew before her death, which overrode the wishes in her will.

The rule allows, so called ‘Death Bed Gifts’, to be made by somebody ‘in contemplation’ of their likely imminent death, without having to write a new will.

The claim hinged on the comments made four months before death, Court of Appeal ruled that Mrs Fairbrother did not expect to die soon, and had adequate opportunity and capacity to change her will.

The law firm acting on behalf of the charities, had argued in Court, that if the High Court decision had been upheld, it would have set a ‘dangerous precedent, undermining the legal sanctity of a properly executed will’. It added that, it could also potentially open flood gates to friends or relatives, making salubrious claims of what a sick or elderly person may have gifted to them in their last few months, circumventing what they had carefully set down in their will during their lifetime.

The Court of Appeal have made it very clear to potential claimants, that it will not look favourably on those who try to override a properly executed will, by making a weak claim to a ‘Death Bed Gift’.

The Courts do not want to encourage potential beneficiaries to concoct unfounded claims to an estate. Nor do they want to discourage people from making wills, and instead to divide up their estates through informal promises, which could easily be contradictory and difficult to unravel or the result of inappropriate pressure.

These type of actions and decisions appear to be flavour of the month in the High Court, and Court of Appeal Chancery Division.

The decision comes in the wake of the news that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds, is looking to sell land bequeathed to the charity to housing developers, despite the widows wishes that the land should never be built on.

The charity was bequeathed 20 acres in rural Cheshire a lifelong environmental enthusiast.

The ruling does not meet with the correctly de-noted evidence that these gifts cannot be made. As with the article of Promissory Estoppel, it is all within the evidence. However, in these types of cases the evidence has to be strong.

Please contact our Contentious Department, if you have a similar situation or require advice.