Healey v Brown (2002)

Succession Law

Healey v Brown
‘The Pact’ by François Bard

As can often result from mutual wills, the overlapping fields of contract law and equity become central to the resolution of this property dispute, after a claimant intervenes in the immoral acquisition of sole title to the matrimonial home of a son’s parents.

The drafting of mutual individual wills reflected that upon death, the surviving spouse became under law, the sole beneficiary of that person’s equitable and legal interest in the property occupied at the time of death. Where neither party were survivable, the individual wills stated that the wife’s niece was to become the beneficiary of the equally held share of the leasehold, and that the father’s son would inherit the remainder of the estate.

Following the death of the wife, the husband took the liberty of transferring his now sole title to that of a shared (or joint) title to the property with his son; an act that in and of itself, contravened the earlier agreement within their final (and irrevocable by declaration) wills. This transgression had remained unaddressed until the death of the father, preceding a naturally vehement claim by the niece that the transfer of title constituted fraud, and that under those circumstances, the son now held both parents’ share of the property upon trust for her, and that despite any contractual arrangements made between the father and son, the binding nature of the mutual wills superseded any administrative effects constructed under the laws of property.

Despite drawing argument against mutual testation under the property doctrine of survivorship, it remained evident that the father was acting within a fiduciary capacity when surviving his wife’s death, and so by avoiding the duties prescribed him, he breached that obligation in favour of his son’s expectation to benefit.

Again, as with the rules of equity and proscription of contract law, there appeared to be a lack of clarity surrounding the written intentions of the testator and testatrix, while the basis for this opposition relied upon s.2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, where the disposition of land requires a single co-signed document containing the terms of the arrangement (or at the very least an exchange of those documents) as proof of intention; yet as the mutual wills were never signed by their respective partners, any desire to enforce their bequests became invalid under the Act itself. This essentially meant that:

“No disposition of land can be challenged unless done so with a written and signed document contrary to the one drafted by the person charged.”

Sadly, the nature of the wills were such that neither party co-signed the others wills prior to their deaths, which thereby prevented a contract of sorts to exist, so on this occasion the judges decided that instead of the property now becoming the sole title to the claimant, as was the design of the mutually drafted wills, the home was now held in equal shares for both parties to enjoy, albeit through the framework of a constructive trust.

Rymer v Stanfield (1895)

English Succession Law

Rymer v Stanfield
‘Theological College of the 14th Century’ by Artur Samofalov

The careful execution of wills and codicils is never truly appreciated until upon dispensation of an estate, the testator/trix’s wishes are forgone in favour of a residual lapse. On this occasion, the deceased intended to bequeath a considerable sum (at the time) to a specifically named college, in order that the students attending would continue to benefit from a religious education beyond his lifetime. As illustrated, the relevant wording requires considerable forethought of specificity, because a failure to do so can prove either contributive or preventative, as was the case here.

When the testator requested that allotted funds were to be granted upon trust to the principal of a St.Thomas’s Seminary for the purposes of funding the attending scholars in their priesthood training, the beneficiary itself was specifically named and the subsequent use of those funds attached to that establishment. This meant that the court was unable to apply the doctrine of cy-prés, which in turn resulted in a lapse of the gift into the testator’s residual estate.

For clarity, ‘cy-prés’ is a process whereby the courts can act within their capacity to draw inference from the underlying intention of a testator/trix, in order to allow a potentially lapsed gift to pass instead to a charitable organisation or cause similar to the one originally intended. This judicial measure becomes operative when the designated recipient has ceased to exist upon death and subsequent enactment of a will or codicil. Where a similar body can be proven to exist, the courts can essentially redirect the funds to that alternative beneficiary, on the proviso that the gift would be used for the ends described in the will. Sadly, in the case of Rymer, the exactness of the wording and assigned legacy was such that no legal interception could follow, and thus no application of the above doctrine could stand.

Gillett v Holt (2000)

English Property Law

Gillett v Holt
Image: ‘Folk Art Farm’ by Tony Grote

The notorious ambiguity of estoppel is explored here through the unexpected end of a lifelong working relationship built upon trust, duty and a faith of spirit, and as is so often found in matters such as these, a man’s word is not always his bond.

After investing the best part of forty years into a farming alliance that created an almost familial structure, the arrival of a divisive party witnessed the destructive end of a mutually prosperous and seemingly concrete friendship. When a younger man forged a meaningful relationship with an older farmer, the two men became almost father and son, with the former relying upon, and often following the wisdom of the latter, in accordance with domestic arrangements, career aspirations and even parenting decisions; all while sustaining and enriching the estate’s financial footing through the course of his duties.

This interdependence became the foundation of a commercial enterprise that by definition became more complex, and so required increased investment from both the employer’s paid advisers and the younger man’s wife as a co-contributor. During the many years spent together, there had been a significant number of verbal declarations as to the intentions of the elder man when it came time to choose a successor to his sprawling estates, and it was these quasi-promises, along with multiple wills, that coloured the appellant’s choice-making and calculated reluctance to set aside the type of financial provisions one might ordinarily expect.

The mechanics of the business and associated friendship continued to flourish, until the arrival of a trained solicitor, who for one reason of another, began making spurious claims that the appellant and his wife were defrauding the business, and that legal intervention was ultimately necessary. This course of action and influential advice also led to the couple’s removal from the existing will, whereupon sole beneficial rights instead passed to the now co-defendant.

After an exhaustive cross-examination in the original hearing, the deciding judge awarded against the appellant, despite his claim of proprietary estoppel following the removal of his presence in the will, and inherent reliance upon the goodwill of the defendant during the passage of time.

At appeal, the fluid and therefore often misinterpreted principle of estoppel, was held to close scrutiny, along with the previous findings of the judge; whereupon it became clear that while a degree of effort had been put into the relevance of estoppel, the obvious right to claim had been lost to principles attributable to succession law. Through the delicate use of equity, the Court then agreed that (i) there was ample evidence to show a detriment under continued reliance, and (ii) that in order for a clean break to exist, there needed to be a reversal of fortune on the part of the co-defendant, and a ‘coming good’ on the word of the older man.