A costly reminder to make sure your affairs are in order

    A costly reminder to make sure your affairs are in order

    In February 2016, a woman won her legal battle to stop her partner’s share in their property passing to his estranged wife, but the matter did not end there.

    The background

    Norman Martin died in 2012 from a heart attack. At the time of his death, he was married to his estranged wife, Maureen Martin. They were no longer in a relationship but hadn't divorced and for the last 18 years of his life, Norman lived with his partner, Joy Williams.

    In 2009, Joy and Norman jointly purchased a property, which they held as tenants in common. This meant that Norman’s share of the property did not automatically pass to Joy on Norman’s death but instead would pass in accordance with his will.

    Unfortunately for Joy, Norman’s last will was prepared in 1986 and left everything to his now estranged wife.

    Concerned over her security for her future, as the property she lived in would now be half-owned by Norman’s estranged wife, Joy was required to bring a claim to court for a financial award from Norman’s estate.

    The decision

    After a long and costly legal battle, with legal fees in excess of £100,000, the court decided that Joy ought to be entitled to a financial provision from Norman’s estate. On considering the evidence available to the court at that time, the trial judge awarded Norman’s share in their jointly owned property to Joy outright.

    The appeal

    Unhappy with the outcome, Norman’s estranged wife appealed the decision and, in March 2017, the case was heard.

    Both parties agreed to allow the appeal judge to substitute their suggested outcome with that of the trial judge.

    Mr Justice Marcus Smith, therefore, considered the position, taking into consideration a 50% share of a house in Bristol worth £150,000 owned by Mrs Williams, which the trial judge had disregarded.

    Mr Justice Marcus Smith further found that the trial judge had over-stated Mrs Martin’s financial position, despite this not being something she had been cross-examined on. Mr Justice Marcus Smith, therefore, altered the decision, leaving Mr Martin’s share in the property on life interest trust for Mrs Williams.

    The outcome

    Inheritance disputes are increasingly common. While it may not be possible to guarantee that your estate will not be challenged, this case (amongst others) highlights the very real need to make sure your affairs are in order. Had Norman prepared an updated will, or taken advice when separating from his wife, it is unlikely this case would have made it to court.

    If you need help or advice in relation to an inheritance dispute, please contact a member of the Dispute Resolution Team.

    If you would like to prepare a will or discuss your existing will, please contact any member of our Private Client Team.

    [Originally published in March 2017; updated in January 2020]

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