An Oxford don who has been left out of his mother’s estate in favour of her younger lover has embarked on a court battle against a firm of solicitors. Distinguished physician Jean Weddell left the majority of her estate to her civil partner Wendy Cook, excluding her son Christopher Gosden altogether.
Mr Gosden who is the director of the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University claims that his mother resolved to leave him her home, an Edwardian property in London worth £1.25 million.
At 78 years of age, Ms Weddell formed a civil partnership with Ms Cook in 2007. Ms Cook is a barrister and 37 years younger than Ms Weddell. By 2010, she had made a Will which excluded her son entirely and gave most of her estate to her partner. She then died in 2013 at the age of 84.
Mr Gosden then learned that the property had been sold in 2010 and by the time she died, there was just £5,000 left in the estate. His claim is against a firm of solicitors who helped his mother set up a trust scheme 2003 to minimise inheritance tax.
According to Mr Gosden, Ms Weddell’s previous Will which was made in 2003 left her estate to him and his wife. She also set up an ‘estate protection scheme’ with the aim of delivering either the property or its proceeds to her son and daughter-in-law in a tax efficient way. Both her son and his wife were appointed as trustees of the scheme alongside Ms Weddell.
Mr Gosden claims that the lawyers who drew up the trust agreement left in a loophole that allowed Ms Weddell to sell the house without informing him or his wife. He believes that the lawyers should have advised Ms Weddell to register a restriction on the title of the property at the Land Registry to ensure that he was notified.
The lawyers’ defence is that he should have sued his mother if he was not happy and that it was not their role to advise Ms Weddell on the advantages or disadvantages of the trust.
Last week the case went before the High Court for a pre trial review and the full trial is expected to start later on this year.
This is certainly not the first case this year where a younger partner has benefited substantially from an elderly person’s estate to the exclusion of their children. Earlier this year the Telegraph reported on a claim against the Estate of Norma Hall by Raymond Brader for reasonable financial provision which gave him a life interest in Mrs Hall’s bungalow contrary to her testamentary wishes. Mrs Hall left two-thirds of her £280,000 estate to her daughter and the remaining third to her granddaughter, but now her family will have to wait until Mr Brader dies before they can take the bulk of their inheritance. In addition, the family were ordered to pay 75% of Mr Brader’s legal costs (thought to be around £80,000) on top of their own. Mr Brader lived in the property with Mrs Hall and claimed they had a romantic relationship prior to her death. Had she consulted with a solicitor and kept her Will in review, it is likely that the claim could have been avoided.
Both cases highlight the need for regular open and honest discussion with family members about testamentary wishes, however difficult this may be. It is also vitally important that Wills are kept up to date to account for any change of circumstances, and that testators properly consider anyone they might be expected to provide for even if they do not leave that person a gift. Using a solicitor rather than making a DIY Will offers the best protection as the solicitor will make extensive notes and advise on strategies to help reduce the risk of a claim.
The cases also highlight that where someone dies leaving a Will that does not adequately provide for loved ones, there are multiple ways to bring a claim. It may be possible to contest the validity of the Will itself or to prove that the person making it was unduly influenced in their choices. A claim for reasonable financial provision may be possible under the Inheritance Act or alternatively, where professionals negligently advised the testator, a claim may be made against those professionals. In all cases, early advice from a specialist solicitor is essential.
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