Wife wins appeal over share of estranged husband’s estate
The problems that can arise if a person fails to keep their will up to date was highlighted in a recent case involving a deceased man’s estranged wife and his new partner.
The man had separated from his wife in 1994 but they did not divorce. Shortly after the separation, he began living with his new partner, but never updated his will so his wife remained his sole beneficiary.
In 2009, he and the partner bought a house in Dorchester which they owned equally. The man had a mortgage over his share.
When he died in 2014, his partner applied under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act for reasonable financial provision. The wife paid off the mortgage on the Dorchester home and offered the partner a life interest in the man’s share of that property to settle her claim.
The judge determined that the man's share of the Dorchester home should be given to the partner to make reasonable financial provision for her. He noted that she owned a house in Bristol equally with her sister, but left it out of account on the basis that she should not be forced to evict her sister to maintain herself.
He rejected the wife's unchallenged evidence of her own financial needs and considered that it was undermined by her life interest offer.
The wife appealed saying there was insufficient evidence that her husband had substantially contributed to the partner's reasonable needs and that the relief granted to the partner was excessive.
The High Court found in favour of the wife. It held there was no good reason to leave out the partner's share in the Bristol property. It was a material asset in which she had an immediate and significant interest.
Given that the wife's evidence as to her financial needs had not been challenged, the judge's rejection of it was impossible to justify.
Taking everything into account, including the partner's equity in the Bristol property and the fact that the wife had paid off the man's mortgage on the Dorchester home, the appropriate order was to give the partner a life interest in the man's share of the Dorchester home, with it reverting to the wife’s estate following the partner’s death.
It could be said that the court had settled the dispute eventually but most of the stress and expense in cases like this could be avoided if a person makes a will and then keeps it up to date as circumstances change over the years.
Please contact Meg Wilton if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of wills and probate.