Inheritances are a frequent source of dispute. This month, the case of dentist Norman Martin hit the headlines. Martin separated from his wife Maureen in 1994, but never divorced. He and his new partner, Joy Williams, lived together for 18 years, and bought a house together in 2009. But when Martin died in 2012, the trouble started. The pair owned the property as “tenants in common”, rather than as “joint tenants”, meaning that Martin’s half of the house did not automatically go to Williams.
Instead, as he had not updated his will, it went to his wife. Williams – who couldn’t afford to buy her out – took the case to court. The judge has found in her favour and awarded her Martin’s half. Maureen now has to pay £100,000 in legal costs. Unsurprisingly, she plans to appeal too.
Your first reaction might be: “what a mess”. You’d be right. The last thing either of these women want, presumably, is to fight over their former partner’s assets in public and in court, not to mention the money wasted on lawyer’s fees. So the key lesson is – make a will, and once you’ve made it, ensure it stays up to date when circumstances change. Had Martin revised his will, even if only to reaffirm that his estranged wife should inherit his assets, it would have been much harder to dispute, saving both women an expensive legal battle.
Unless your estate is very simple, it’s worth including an explanation of why you are allocating your assets in a given way, say Slater and Gordon Lawyers. A growing number of wills are being challenged on the grounds that they are “unfair”, or the writer wasn’t of sound mind. While courts can still intervene, they’re less likely to do so if there is evidence that the person who wrote the will had a logical basis for their decisions. The larger the estate and more complex the family, the more important it is to get legal help drafting your will.
The dispute highlights another issue – there is no such thing as “common-law marriage” in the UK, and co-habitees do not have the same rights as couples in marriages or civil partnerships. Until and unless that changes (which would open up a whole other legal can of worms), make sure that you are clear on how your assets would be divided up if you split up, or one of you dies. If you’re not, then you need to have that conversation with your partner – however uncomfortable it is.