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Deathbed gifts and missing cash

20 February 2020

An estate worth £367,000, which was left intestate in its entirety to one sole recipient, despite other potential beneficiaries, has raised questions over UK intestacy rules.

When Mick Ivory died in 2018 without a Will, issues over who should inherit a share of his estate arose.

Mick left behind three brothers and a nephew, however, he reportedly bequeathed everything to one brother, Peter.

The disinherited family members claim that, under the UK intestacy rules, they should have each received a share in the Estate but Peter’s defence of donatio mortis causa, which permits someone on their deathbed to make posthumous gifts without a Will if certain conditions are met, is that he fulfilled his brother’s dying wish.

According to Peter, in the days leading up to his brother’s death, Mick decided to leave Peter everything he owned and made Peter promise not to let the other members of the family “get their hands on his hard-earned money.”

It was also Mick’s wish for Peter to “keep it all and, if [he] couldn’t keep it, to give it away.” Peter honoured his brother’s wishes by travelling around the country, giving away all of the £367,000 to the poor and needy.

Judge Paul Teverson, who presided over the proceedings on 13 February 2020 at the High Court, has ordered Peter to account for the money he distributed.

Judge Teverson told Peter, “the claimants are entitled to know what happened to the money. The court will not be satisfied by saying that the Estate has simply been given away.  I want to know where the money has gone.”

The case has been adjourned, subject to Peter providing a satisfactory account of the distributed funds.

Judge Teverson has included a penal notice on the order, which means that failure to account for the monies could result in a custodial sentence for Peter.

The doctrine of donatio mortis causa may only apply to a deathbed gift if:

  • The donor is aware that they are likely to die, and the gift is therefore made in contemplation of this.
  • The gift only takes effect once the donor has died.
  • The gift is ‘delivered’ in some way by the donor.*

*It is possible to give the gift away in this manner (in the case of Sen v Headley, it was found that instructions of where to find a key and deeds could constitute a gift of a house).

We await the outcome of the case (Ivory), but are reminded once again that dying without a Will can have contentious and costly consequences.

If you would like further advice on this issue, or other related issues, you can contact our Probate specialists here.

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