Claim brought by charities over construction of a Will is upheld by High Court

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In Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind v Beasant and Daviesthe High Court has held in favour a group of charities regarding a Will construction dispute.

The case concerned the Will of Audrey Arkell, who died in 2017 aged 91, and whose estate was valued for probate purposes at more than £3million before inheritance tax.

The claim was brought by the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind and also on behalf 20 other charities against executors and trustees appointed under the Will, John Wayland Beasant, a named beneficiary, and Benjamin How Davies, a solicitor.

Mrs Arkell left Mr Beasant specific gifts of a £240,000 apartment, shares worth more than £200,000, and personal items valued at £1,390, free of tax. She left gifts totalling £45,000 to other friends and relations. The remainder of her estate was to be divided equally between 21 charities.

The focal point of the dispute was a clause which stated: “4. I give the nil-rate sum to my trustees on trust for my said friend, John Wayland Beasant.”

However, sub-clause 4.1 of the Will provided clarification of that clause: ‘“the nil-rate sum” means the largest sum of cash which could be given on the trusts of this clause without any inheritance tax becoming due in respect of the transfer of the value of my estate which I am deemed to make immediately before my death.’

At the time of Mrs Arkell’s death, the nil-rate band was £325,000. On that basis, Mr Beasant argued that the clause meant he should receive £325,000 free of inheritance tax, in addition to the other gifts made to him. However, the charities contended that Mr Beasant was only entitled to the amount of money left -if any – following the deduction of all the other gifts on which inheritance tax was charged at the nil-rate. The Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind therefore maintained that there was no sum payable to Mr Beasant because the value of the other gifts exceeded the nil-rate limit.

In his making her decision, Master Shuman said it would do ‘considerable violence to the language of the Will to effectively read clause 4 as meaning a sum which equates to the nil rate band at the date of death of the deceased and to ignore sub-clause 4.1 in its entirety’. She added that if the deceased had intended to gift the nil rate band to Mr Beasant ‘the Will could simply have said that’.

The case shows that care is needed when drafting a Will. Do the words of the Will reflect and achieve the testator’s intentions? Reading the clauses in this case, it seems that the outcome was inevitable so I wonder whether the Will file showed a different intention (that Mr Beasant was meant to receive both the gifts and £325,000) from the result achieved and the case was run in an attempt to avoid a negligence claim against the solicitor who drafted the Will?

In such cases, there are three benefits to using a solicitor to draft your Will. First, if you select one with appropriate expertise the likelihood of an error is reduced, so avoiding the need for unpleasant and costly litigation. Second, if they do get it wrong, unlike other Will drafters, solicitors are required to keep their files which may well contain valuable evidence. Third, solicitors are required to maintain insurance to cover incidents like these. If you choose the right solicitor, you should only need to rely on the first of these points.