Historic ‘deathbed gift’ legacy case – decision overturned

Redwings Horse Sanctuary and Chilterns Dog Rescue Society have expressed their delight and relief after an historic decision in the Court of Appeal in a landmark legacy case.

The Court of Appeal has today (June 9th 2015) overturned the High Court judgment in the case of King v Dubrey & Others [2014], which had allowed for a passing statement made by a deceased lady to her nephew regarding her property to override her formally made Will.

June Fairbrother made a Will in 1998 leaving around £20,000 of pecuniary legacies to family and friends, and the rest of her estate to seven animal welfare charities - Redwings Horse Sanctuary, Chilterns Dog Rescue Society, Blue Cross, PDSA, IFAW, The Donkey Sanctuary and World Animal Protection. Mrs Fairbrother was well known for her love of animals and was a supporter of many of the charities during her lifetime.

When Mrs Fairbrother died in 2011 her estate mainly consisted of a property worth £350,000. Sometime after her death, her nephew, Kenneth King, claimed that Mrs Fairbrother had spoken to him about her house, effectively gifting her property to him, four to six months before she died; thereby undermining her Will and leaving nothing for her chosen charities or the friends and family she had pledged money to.

In 2014 the High Court ruled that Mrs Fairbrother did, by operation of the little known legal doctrine of donatio mortis causa (‘gifts made in contemplation of death’*), gift the property to Mr King, a result which meant that the charities and other beneficiaries would receive nothing from her estate.

But Redwings Horse Sanctuary and Chilterns Dog Rescue Society elected to appeal the decision, believing the High Court result set a dangerous precedent and undermined the legal sanctity of a properly executed Will. The Court of Appeal has today by unanimous decision found in favour of the charities and overturned the High Court judgment on the donatio mortis causa (DMC).**

In his judgment, Lord Justice Jackson said: “In my view, it cannot be said that June was contemplating her impending death at the relevant time. She was not suffering from a fatal illness. Nor was she about to undergo a dangerous operation or to undertake a dangerous journey. If June was dissatisfied with her existing Will and suddenly wished to leave everything to the claimant, the obvious thing for her to do was to go to her solicitors and make a new Will. June was an intelligent retired police officer. There is not the slightest reason why she should not have taken that course.

“If June had taken that course, the solicitors would have talked to her in the absence of the claimant. They would have ensured that June understood the new Will which she was making and that she intended the consequences. One of those consequences was that the animal charities, which June had supported for many years, would inherit nothing on her death. If the DMC claim is upheld, the effect will be that June’s Will is largely superseded and the bulk of her estate will pass to the claimant, who is not even named as a beneficiary in the Will. This would bypass all of the safeguards provided by the Wills Act and the Law of Property Act.”

Lynn Cutress, Chief Executive of Redwings, said: “This was always about a principle of law. June Fairbrother loved animals and had made a Will to demonstrate that fact, and the High Court judgment completely undermined her wishes. We never believed that the Respondent showed adequate evidence of a donatio mortis causa (DMC), as any conversation was not held in expectation of her impending death, which is central to the doctrine. We knew this action was necessary in order to give confidence back to our supporters and the public at large that any wishes they set down in their Will in their lifetime could not be overruled by something so fleeting and unsubstantiated. We are so relieved that the Court of Appeal has overturned the judgment as this would have had huge ramifications not just for our supporters but for anyone contemplating making a Will.”

David Lewis, Chairman of Chilterns Dog Rescue Society, said, “It was a brave decision for a small charity like ours to go to appeal. However, the Society was desperately unhappy with the original judgment as it steamrollered June’s rightful wishes and we are therefore both pleased and relieved with the outcome.”

Charlotte Watts, solicitor for the charities, said: “I want to thank the charities for having the courage to take this matter to appeal and overturn this dangerous precedent. It should send out a clear message to potential claimants that the Court will not look favourably on those who try to circumvent the Wills Act.”

*A DMC is a gift made by a donor in contemplation of their death in the near future but which remains conditional until they die, at which point the gift takes effect.

** Mr King will receive £75,000 from the estate as the Court of Appeal confirmed that June Fairbrother’s Will did not make reasonable provision for him and he meets the legal criteria for a dependant under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

The full judgment can be found here (PDF)