The plight of people being forced to move from their homes due to not being provided for in a Will is an ancient one. In two of Jane Austin’s books, namely Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, being evicted from the family home was one of the main themes.
Over 200 years later, a new drama involving a Will, a home and a person who did not want to leave and a beneficiary who wanted them to vamoose played out in the British media. But instead of the usual tale of an impoverished person, destined to be sent out penniless into the harsh world on the whim of a heartless relative who had inherited all under a Will, this story involved a 90-year-old millionaire who never expected to inherit anything from his partner, as he always believed he would die first.
The case of Lewis v Warner began when Thomas Warner, lost his partner of 20 years, a Mrs Audrey Blackwell. Mrs Blackwell owned the Gloucestershire property and she and Mr Warner never married. Mr Warner was the wealthier of the two and always expected to pre-decease Mrs Blackwell and had made provisions for her in his Will. However, Mrs Blackwell died first, leaving the home she had shared with 90-year-old Mr Warner to her daughter, Ms Lynn Lewis.
Ms Lewis wanted Mr Warner to leave the house so she could sell the property on the open market. Mr Warner refused to go, saying he had spent the happiest 19 years of his life at the property and wanted to see out the remainder of his days there. The house was located in the village in which he grew up and lived his entire adult life. In addition, he told the court his health was fragile and his neighbour, who was a doctor, had provided him with an emergency button which she would respond to straight away.
It was never in dispute that Mr Warner could not afford to buy another property, he had plenty of funds at his disposal.
Mr Warner brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the Act), s1(1)(ba) and 1(1A). Section 1(1)(ba) of the Act states a person who was being wholly or partly maintained by the deceased can make a claim on the Will on the grounds the deceased did not make reasonable financial provisions for the claimant.
The court’s decision
At first instance, the court ruled that the property should be transferred to Mr Warner for £385,000. A valuer had stated the property was worth £340,000. Although a separate valuation commissioned by Ms Lewis had come in at a slightly higher figure, it was still below the transfer sum.
However, Ms Lewis wanted to sell the house on the open market, a wish denied to her by the court’s decision. She therefore appealed.
Ms Lewis argued at the appeal hearing that Mr Warner was not entitled to have the property transferred to him because he was not in need of any financial provision from Mrs Blackwell’s Will. Two issues therefore arose, namely:
- For the purposes of the Act, was Mr Warner being ‘maintained’ by Mrs Blackwell and if so,
- Was the court in the first instance entitled to rule that Mrs Blackwell did not make reasonable financial provision for Mr Warner?
In a judgment delivered by Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Court of Appeal upheld the earlier judgement, ruling that although Mrs Blackwell had left the house to her daughter in her Will, she was still obliged to make “reasonable provision” for Mr Warner when she died, even though they were not wed. The fact that Mrs Blackwell had provided a particular home for Mr Warner was enough to deem her as ‘maintaining’ him under the Act.
What this judgment means in practice
Much of this case turns on its facts. Had Mr Warner been a younger, fitter man, it is likely he would have been required to move out of the property so Ms Lewis could sell it on the open market as she desired. But given Mr Warner’s age and disability and the fact he was surrounded by support, the court held that forcing him to vacate should be avoided.
Perhaps the stress of the trial could have been avoided as well. Mr Warner was 90 years old at the time, so clearly, he would not have had many years left to him. He and Ms Lewis got on well prior to the death of Mrs Blackwell. If both had been willing to compromise, through negotiation or perhaps mediation, on the issues, an expensive court case could have been avoided. For example, Ms Lewis could have agreed to allow Mr Warner to rent the house from her during his lifetime and then sell it after his death.
Disputes over Wills and Probate cost more than simply money. They also result in stress and fractured personal relationships. Sometimes a solicitor’s role is to make clients pause for thought and see if there is a less contentious way of resolving a dispute than win/lose litigation.