Will dispute over uncle's estate: the implications of lifetime promises

30 June 2023

Craig Ridge, Partner and Head of Contentious Probate and Trusts, and Georgia Stott, a Senior Associate in the team, acted for two sisters in relation to a claim concerning their uncle’s estate against their uncle’s son. 

Lifetime promises 

The will dispute concerned an agreement which had been made during their uncle’s lifetime in relation to his property, which our clients were seeking to enforce following his death. Their cousin argued that the agreement was not enforceable. If he was correct, our clients would lose out on an interest in their uncle’s primary asset: his property (which he had inherited from their grandparents). This would see the two of them poorer to the tune of approximately £800,000. 

At the outset of the matter there was the added difficulty that one of our clients and their cousin, were appointed as executors. Needless to say, relations between the two were not good, and as a result the administration of the estate was suffering. 

Following considerable argument in correspondence, our clients’ opponent conceded that it would be preferable for the estate to be administered by an independent Personal Representative. Accordingly, an application was made to appoint an Independent Personal Representative on a consensual basis. 

Enforcing a lifetime agreement 

This left the primary claim: to enforce the lifetime agreement. The claim was issued and an order sought that the lifetime agreement (which we argued was in the form of a deed) would be enforced. The cousin argued that the document amounted to no more than a “promise” from him to his father that he would ensure our clients received a share of the property at some point, arguing that the “promise” was not enforceable, and even if it was, it was not enforceable yet. 

The claim involved complex legal principles regarding consideration and the effect of promissory notes. 

The claim proceeded to a directions hearing, and we were at the stage of preparing witness statements when the parties agreed to mediate. Thankfully agreement was reached which saw our clients receive the full interest they were claiming (minus their costs), and it meant that our clients were saved the time, cost and stress of pursuing their claim to a final hearing. 

This is a good example of a case that had all the signs of being very difficult to settle – parties who were at loggerheads, varying recollections of events that happened in lifetime, and the validity of documents being disputed – but nevertheless was concluded on terms that meant the parties did not have to engage in protracted litigation. This in itself is usually a good outcome for clients – as it was in this case – as it takes the risk of a court hearing out of the picture. 

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