Sibling spats involving family and parents are not new. However, with the advent of email communications, those disputes, fuelled by the exchange of nasty e-mails, tend to grow totally out of proportion. Sometimes the ensuing litigation is so costly that it wipes out the total value of the estate.
An example of this is the recent English case of Hawes v Burgess. The case involved a will challenge between siblings over the estate of their late mother Daphne Burgess. The three siblings Peter, Julia and Libby did not grow up in a wealthy home. Peter and his sisters always got along well and they were a close knit family. However, petty sibling rivalry and jealousy led to a breakdown in the family.
Peter, the youngest sibling, had tremendous financial success as an adult. He ran a successful business which eventually sold for almost £ 5 million. The eldest sister Libby did not fare as well and was a single mother of four living on government benefits. The middle sister Julia became a magistrate and was well off, although not as well off as her brother Peter.
Their father, Peter Sr., who died in 1993, always instilled in his family the importance of being close and he believed in treating the children equally. The mother Daphne made a will 1996 in which she divided her estate equally between all three of her children.
In 2000, Daphne’s health started to deteriorate. The family decided to sell their mother’s house and move her close to Julia. Peter bought his mother a bungalow registered in his own name but he made provision that his mother would be able to live there as long as she wanted, even if Peter predeceased her.
Then an incident caused a rift between Peter and Julia which was to tear apart the close family. Their mother Daphne was a diabetic. Julia’s husband gave Daphne a sugary drink (something that a diabetic of course should never ingest). Peter was upset and he said something that he probably he should not have said. He called Julia’s husband an “idiot” in front of one of Julia’s daughters. Julia was obviously upset by the incident and she sent a nasty email to Peter. That led to an equally nasty email back from Peter. A bitter dispute ensued and Peter and Julia stopped speaking to each other.
Not long thereafter, Daphne, without the knowledge of Peter and his sister Libby, made a new will naming Julia and Libby as the only residuary beneficiaries and cutting Peter out of the will other than for a few personal items. Julia arranged the appointment with the firm of solicitors who drafted the will and took her mother to meet with the solicitor Mr. Webster on December 20, 2006. The new will was executed on January 12, 2007.
According to the story about the case in the Telegraph in which Peter was interviewed, his mother had had a mini stroke on December 29, 2006 and went into the hospital. She then moved in with Julia. Notwithstanding that, Julia still drove her mother to the solicitor’s office on January 12, 2007 to sign the will.
When the lawyer Mr. Webster met with Daphne to take instructions for the will , Julia was present at the meeting as well. Mr. Webster, who was an experienced solicitor, dictated a note to the file that he was of the view that Daphne had capacity to make a will. However, he does not appear to have undertaken a careful interview of his client in private to assess testamentary capacity. A draft of the will was never sent out to Daphne for her review.
When it came time to execute the will, Julia was present with her mother at the signing ceremony. The lawyer testified at trial that he read over each provision of the will to Daphne and that she appeared to understand and approve its contents. However, there were spelling mistakes in the will. In particular, Peter’s middle name was incorrect and yet Daphne did not indicate that the provision should be changed.
After Daphne died in 2009, Peter decided to challenge the 2007 will. Surprisingly, his sister Libby joined him in the challenge even though she stood to receive half the estate under the 2007 will and only one- third under the prior will. Julia took the position that the 2007 will was valid. The trial took place over six days with 26 witnesses. The estate was worth less than £200,000.
At trial, an expert was called who gave a retrospective opinion that the deceased was suffering from dementia and had diminishing mental capacity. The trial judge accepted the evidence and held that the deceased lacked the appropriate knowledge and approval of the 2007 will. Interestingly, undue influence was not discussed in the decision.
The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal after observing that the costs of litigation wiped out the entire value of the estate! The Court of Appeal referred to the fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the”foggy family law suit” described in Dickens’ Bleak House. The Court noted that the efforts of lawyers and the Rules of Civil Procedure did not dissuade the parties from following a course leading to the dissipation of deceased’s estate in costs and legal fees.
Peter Burgess apparently never wanted any of the money. According to the published article in the Telegraph, he intends to see that both Libby and Julia get their share of the estate. Peter will give his share to Libby who needs the money. Peter has decided to pay all the legal costs of £150,000 out of his own pocket so that there will an estate to be distributed. I must say that Peter is much more generous than the litigants I have met.
Perhaps Peter feels that he bears some responsibility for what happened. After all, it was his comment that started the dispute. Rather than apologizing and sitting down with his sister to make amends, he and Julia blew the dispute totally out of proportion which led to the estate being consumed by legal fees.
Peter wants to reconcile with his sister Julia according to the published story, but he says, “… for that to happen …my sister would have to accept that she did wrong.”
Hopefully, brother and sister will each apologize and reconcile.