Inheritance Act Saves Woman's Home
In a case reported in the press involving parties from Dorchester which has hotly divided opinion, the County Court has held that the co-habitee of a dentist is entitled to his share of their jointly owned home.
Mr Martin and Ms Williams had lived together for 18 years, but their joint ownership of the house did not provide for his share to pass to her on his death, and Mr Martin had not changed an old Will in which he had left his estate to his wife. During his long relationship with Ms Williams, Mr Martin and his wife had never divorced.
The effect was that Ms Williams owned half of the house but the other half of the house passed to Mrs Martin, leading to a battle to establish whether that half of the house should instead pass to Ms Williams.
Mr Martin died in 2012 but the case was only decided 16 February 2016.
On the one hand, the case shows the significance of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act.
There have been a number of cases attracting attention in the media where claims under the Act have been brought successfully. The Act provides for a limited class of people to be able to bring a claim. This includes spouses, children and other people who have been maintained by the Deceased. They can ask for financial provision from the estate.
Unfortunately, Wills remain in force even when circumstances have changed. Once parties divorce, any bequests in their Wills to their former spouse no longer take effect, but if they do not get around to divorcing, that change does not happen.
The Act is therefore very important in order to deal with such problems.
A key point to take from the case of Ms Williams is that an expensive Court battle was entirely avoidable.
Couples can buy houses as what is known as “Joint Tenants” or what is known as “Tenants in Common”. This can cause confusion: the situation has nothing to do with renting or tenancies. If Mr Martin and Ms Williams had bought the property as “Joint Tenants”, the property would have automatically passed to Ms Williams on Mr Martin’s death irrespective of anything else. The result now achieved following a long Court case could have been achieved by signatures on a very simple piece of paper.
Equally, if Mr Martin had divorced his wife had made a new Will, or had he changed his Will and left the property to Ms Williams, that would have solved the problem. The case highlights the considerable importance of updating a Will when circumstances change, to avoid an old Will producing an outcome which may not be desired many years later.
Perhaps Mr Martin and Ms Williams gave no thought to what might happen. Indeed they may have assumed that the property would pass to Ms Williams, without understanding the true legal position regarding marriages, second families and forms of ownership. It is extremely important to obtain legal advice about any ownership outside marriage to ensure that what happens upon death reflects what the parties in the relationship wished to happen. The considerable stress and expense of Court proceedings can then be avoided.
It has been reported that Mrs Martin intends to appeal, prolonging the dispute for many months to come. It cannot be known what the outcome of that will be. Different Judges do reach different conclusions.
It is sensible to settle cases as early as reasonably possible and without incurring more legal costs than necessary. Even better still is to avoid issues arising in the first place.
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