02/07/2014

Man Wins High Court Battle Against Animal Charities

The High Court has ruled that Mr King will inherit his aunt’s (Mrs Fairbrother) £350,000 house, which she had left to seven well known animal charities (the Blue Cross, PDSA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Donkey Sanctuary, World Animal Protection, Redwings and the Chilterns Dog Rescue Society) under her last will.

Mr King argued that his aunt gifted him her house shortly before her death so that he could remain in the property and look after her dogs and cats. Mr King relied upon the little used doctrine of donatio mortis causa, which is commonly called a gift made in contemplation of death. The gift only takes effect on death and there must be a delivery of the gift or something representing the gift which is accepted by the recipient  of the gift. This last requirement is often the most difficult to prove. In this case the donor handed over the title deeds to her home, which was powerful corroborative evidence.  The charities argued that the house had not been gifted to Mr King and that it therefore fell within Mrs Fairbrother’s estate and should pass in accordance with her will. Furthermore, the charities claimed that Mr King’s evidence could not be trusted as he had previously been made bankrupt twice and had been jailed for 12 months for acting as a company director when disqualified.

The judgment says. “In the period shortly before her death, she [Mrs Fairbrother] signed documents to the effect that Mr King should have the property when she died.”

The judge found that June Fairbrother made a valid donatio mortis causa of the property to Mr King. The charities, who are represented by Wilsons, are now considering appealing the decision.

At first blush, this may appear to be a surprising decision, given Mr King’s previous conduct, but it appears that on the basis Mrs Fairbrother documented the gift and was deemed to have had mental capacity at the time the gift was made it was deemed to be a valid gift. There is little case law relating to the doctrine of donatio mortis causa and it is possible that this decision may lead to an increase of claims of this type. However, it may well also lead to a rise in counter-claims by defendants alleging undue influence by the recipient of such gifts over the donor. It will be interesting to see the outcome of any appeal by the charities.

This case once again proves the problems that can be caused by not taking proper advice in relation to wills and lifetime gifts. Getting legal advice during your lifetime in situations like this can seem to be over the top, but ultimately getting that advice can save your estate many thousands of pounds in legal fees.

Click here for coverage of the case on BBC News.

If you want to avoid getting into a dispute then please contact Greg Dixon from our award winning private client team on 0113 227 0202 or at greg.dixon@gordonsllp.com