Would you squander your entire inheritance on legal fees, just to make sure your stepmother didn’t get a little bit extra from your father’s estate? It sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what two brothers in London have done. And they’re not the only ones. There are countless examples of estate battles that have squandered an inheritance.
Richard and Jonathan Powell had claimed their disabled father, David, did not understand what he was doing when he made his final will, granting his second wife £125,000. They said an earlier document, from which stepmother Ailsa Williamson Powell would get £100,000, was his last true will, and forced the pensioner to go to court over it.
Ruling they should pick up the entire estimated £200,000 legal bill for the case — thereby wiping out their own inheritance — the judge blasted the sons for forcing her to go to court. “She should not have been put to the trouble and expense of proving this claim on the tenuous basis of challenge advanced by Richard and Jonathan Powell,” he said. “My conclusion is that their position has not been reasonable at any point in this litigation.”
Retired Kent farm manager Mr Powell died aged 84 in 2012 after a 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. His death set his second wife of nine years and his sons from his first marriage — Wandsworth financial advisor Richard, 54, and US-based Jonathan, 55,— against each other in court.
Mrs Williamson Powell, of Littlebourne, Kent, said a will made in 2009 in which she was left £125,000 — equal to half of the remaining estate after gifts to others — was her husband’s last true will. The brothers were bequeathed £62,500 each.
However, they claimed a will made 18 months earlier, in which she and they split the estate three ways, was the last valid one. The widow’s barrister, Mark Dencer, said the case had only come about because the brothers did not like her and hoped she would “lack the stomach or means to fight”. Having lost the case, the brothers argued that the costs should be paid out of their father’s estate. The court heard Mrs Williamson Powell had tried to settle outside court and found it “inexplicable” that it had actually gone to trial.
The Squandered Inheritance of Peter Ustinov
In another case, the family of Peter Ustinov, the celebrated actor, director and raconteur, are still fighting over his estate, nine years after his death.
He was married three times and had four children. The double Oscar-winner, one of Britain’s most respected actors who starred in films including Spartacus, Death on the Nile and Lorenzo’s Oil, died in 2004, aged 82. It is estimated that he was then worth tens of millions of pounds. His estate includes a Renoir and a country estate in Switzerland, complete with a vineyard. Now it seems that little of his vast fortune is left.
Judges in Switzerland, where he lived, rule that he died intestate, with money passing to his widow, Helene, who is in her mid-eighties and lives in Paris.
But Igor Cloutier von Ustinov, Sir Peter’s son by his second wife, Suzanne Cloutier, has tried to prove that trusts were set up by his father in Lichtenstein and Switzerland that would mean much of his estate should be handed to his children, rather than his widow.He argues that the whereabouts of these trusts are known only by two retired Swiss lawyers whom he claims are the trustees. These men vehemently deny his claim.
von Ustinov, 56, says he is close to bankruptcy. “It’s a horrible situation,” he says. “My father gave me power of attorney on his deathbed and asked me to put things right for him. I think he knew the banks and lawyers were going to act like this. He said ‘thank you’. But I didn’t know what that ‘thank you’ meant. It has been very hard. Now I’m close to bankruptcy, and I don’t know what to do. Nine years I’ve been fighting and I haven’t inherited a penny yet. I have suffered enormously for this, and am ready to give up my inheritance. But I feel I have to make a stand against the Swiss institutions. At least we will make a point.”
Mrs Justice Proudman said that Sir Peter, before his death, had set up “tax efficient structures” for his royalties. Rejecting von Ustinov’s claim, she said: “The allegation is that a trust must have been set up, but there is no evidence of any actual trust. Mr von Ustinov can’t say who are its beneficiaries and what are its terms. His claim is the most fragile claim imaginable. Nor is there any evidence of any trust governed by English law.”
It Took Just Four Years to Squander This Inheritance
The children of Daphne Burgess managed to squander their inheritance in just four years.
The pensioner changed her will shortly after moving from her semi detached home in Milton Keynes to a bungalow which her son, Peter Burgess, had bought for her following a fall, leaving her with £162,000 from the sale. She then made the changes to her will, with one of her daughters, Julia Hawes, as her escort to the solicitor’s office, in which she cut Mr Burgess out, promising instead to make improvements to the bungalow.
Along with his other sister, Libby, Peter contested the new document, claiming his mother was in the grips of dementia when she made the change. Mrs Hawes maintained she was of sound mind.
The fight went all the way to the Court of Appeal, leaving a rift between the three which is “beyond repair”.
When Mrs Burgess died, aged 80, she had less than £200,000 to her name. That sum is now dwarfed by lawyers’ bills for the bitterly-fought, six-day trial, involving 26 witnesses.
Lord Justice Mummery said: “The cost of contesting Mrs Burgess’ will is a calamity for this family in every way. Even worse are the human consequences for a once close-knit and loving family.”
The judges ruled in favour of Mr Burgess, stating his mother had lacked “knowledge and approval” of the contents of her new will.
How can you avoid a mammoth estate dispute that threatens to squander your entire inheritance? It’s important to seek legal advice from a specialist in succession law (wills and estates). There are strict time limits that apply, and an expert can help you with a solution that saves all parties time and money.
For your free, 10-minute phone consultation, contact us today.