You may wish to leave a legacy to a charity in your will. This is an honourable wish and in Patrick J Farrell and Company, we can help ensure your wishes are respected.
Unfortunately, inheritance disputes are becoming more common than ever before. The cases that we see in court are just the tip of the iceberg as many are settled out of court. It is important that you get good legal advice when leaving a legacy in your will; you don’t want to cause a family dispute after you die.
This article will outline some of the ways your will can be challenged, using a recent and well known case in England, “Gill v RSPCA”. We will then outline a number of steps you can take with your will to try and minimise the chances of a dispute arising after you die.
Gill v RSPCA: How somebody could challenge your will
While the case of Gill v RSPCA is not Irish, and therefore not Irish law, it might be persuasive in an Irish court. In addition it highlights many important points of inheritance law that also apply in Ireland.
The case centres around the estate of Mrs. Gill which was worth approximately £12m and was left to the RSPCA. Nothing was left to Mrs. Gill’s daughter, Dr. Gill. The daughter brought a case arguing that she should inherit her mother’s assets (primarily a farm of 287 acres). The daughter won after a long court case that went all the way to the Court of Appeal. Dr .Gill received the entirety of her mother’s estate and nothing was given to the RSPCA.
Dr. Gill argued that she should receive the assets on three grounds:
1. Mrs. Gill did not have full knowledge and approval of the contents of the will.
2. Mrs. Gill did not leave the legacy to the RSPCA of her own free will. The legal term for this is “undue influence”. Mrs. Gill was a very nervous woman who was afraid to leave the house and talk to people. Mr. Gill was a very strong character. It was argued that Mrs. Gill was forced to leave everything to the RSPCA and that she would have preferred to leave everything to her daughter.
3. Promises were made to Dr. Gill that she would inherit the farm and she helped out on the farm on this basis. It would be unfair for the estate to go to the RSPCA. This is a legal concept called “proprietary estoppel”.
It is important that a person has full knowledge and approval of the contents of their will. In this case, while Mrs. Gill did sign her will, her nervous disorder may have prevented her from fully realising what she was signing.
This issue is also important to remember if you are making “mirror wills” with your spouse (i.e. the wills say the same thing). If you want to leave a legacy in your will (as Mr. Gill did), it is often wise to ensure that your spouse knows and approves of this legacy. Equally, you need to make sure that your spouse does not feel pressured into agreeing to the legacy. A prudent idea would be for your spouse to get independent legal advice prior to making the will,.
The concept of proprietary estoppel is also important to consider when providing for a legacy in your will. If you have made promises to people (in particular your children) and they rely on those promises to their detriment (for example by spending time or money on the land they are to inherit) then they may have a claim against your estate after you die. It is important not to make promises lightly and to speak about your intentions with your solicitor first where you can go through all the important issues before committing to anything. If you do make promises, it is important to remember them and reflect them in your will. The last thing you want is for part of your estate to be spent on legal fees if the one of your family feel they are forced to take legal action.
Steps to prevent a legacy dispute after you die If you want to leave your assets to a charity after you die, your wishes should be respected. Here are some steps you could take to help prevent claims against your estate by relatives.
Most importantly, you should seek good legal advice from a solicitor experienced in this area. In Patrick J Farrell, one of our key practice areas is inheritance disputes and we have significant experience in drawing up complex estate plans to ensure that a person’s wishes are carried out. In addition, the law on charities is a special interest area of ours. We have been dealing with charity clients for many years and are experienced in the issues surrounding legacies from a charity’s point of view.
Good legal advice and a properly prepared estate plan will help avoid successful challenges like Dr. Gill’s. For example, in this case it appeared that Mr. Gill was the one who desired the legacy to be left to the RSPCA. With good legal advice, his will could have provided for both his family and the charity in a way that would be unlikely to be challenged.
Finally, it is often good advice to discuss your wishes with your family before you die. We appreciate that this might be difficult and that you might rather avoid the topic but it might help considerably after your death. In the case of children especially, there will be no nasty surprises if you have explained your wishes before your death. In addition it gives you the chance to explain your reasons and avoids all sorts of confusion when you are no longer there to answer questions.