June 14, 2013

Inheritance and Trust disputes team help brothers claim rightful inheritance

High Court Judge, Sir William Blackburne, has ordered that a daughter must return gifts made to her by her mother in the last year of her life, as he was “not persuaded” that her mother made the gifts of her independent free will.

Susan Burbidge, of Poole, received gifts of the proceeds of sale of her mother’s two properties and a building society account containing £290,000. This was further to substantial gifts she had previously received from her mother. Following her husband’s death in 2005, Mrs Hart held assets which were estimated to be worth in excess of £1 million. However, through various gifts, particularly during the final year of her life, she transferred to Mrs Burbidge and her husband almost the entirety of her assets.

Mrs Burbidge has been involved in a long running legal dispute with her two brothers, Kenneth and Paul Hart (also from the Poole area), represented by our specialist inheritance disputes team in Bath, and various other members of Mrs Hart’s family, who all appeared to have lost a significant inheritance from Mrs Hart’s estate.

Mrs Burbidge argued that she was simply following the wishes of her mother, who wanted to enable her to purchase a new 5 bedroom property in which Mrs Hart and the Burbidges would live. The property was registered entirely in Mr and Mrs Burbidge’s names, with Mrs Hart having no interest in the property. However, following the death of Mrs Hart (shortly after she had moved into the new property), Mrs Burbidge returned £410,000 to Mrs Hart’s estate, which was said to be in accordance with an unsigned loan arrangement between Mrs Burbidge and her mother.

The Hart brothers and other family members, including Mrs Hart’s brothers and sister, felt that Mrs Burbidge exerted influence over her mother when it came to financial transactions. Of particular concern was Mrs Hart’s vulnerability when it came to understanding financial matters. On the basis of the evidence before him, Sir William Blackburne commented that he was left with the “strong impression that she [Mrs Hart] had difficulty with large matters when she would rely on others to help her”.

The Hart brothers claimed that, due to the nature of the relationship between Mrs Burbidge and her mother and due to the nature of the transactions that took place, the presumption of ‘undue influence’ arose.

Sir William Blackburne agreed, noting that Mrs Hart’s relationship with her daughter was defined by “trust and confidence, reliance and dependence” and, while there had been no challenge to the previous substantial gifts made to Mrs Burbidge, the fact that Mrs Hart made further gifts so soon afterwards of “all but a small part of the property that remained to her” clearly called for “an explanation”.

Concern was also raised about the lack of legal advice that Mrs Hart received. Mrs Hart’s long time solicitor explained in evidence that he felt that he was “deliberately not contacted and allowed to follow the course of action that had previously been agreed”, which he found “absolutely appalling”. While Mrs Hart’s solicitor was aware of the proposals to purchase a new property, he understood he was to have the opportunity to liaise with Mrs Burbidge’s solicitors to ensure that Mrs Hart’s interests were secured. However, Mrs Hart’s solicitor heard no further before the new property was purchased. In fact, Mrs Burbidge confirmed in evidence that she had drafted a letter to her mother’s solicitor on behalf of her mother, which indicated that Mrs Burbidge’s solicitors were due to make contact, even though Mrs Burbidge had not instructed them to do so.  Sir William Blackburne ruled that the “dishonest letter” was “significant”, as “its motive can only have been to avoid involving [Mrs Hart’s solicitor] in what was about to happen”.

Mrs Burbidge argued that her mother was fully aware of the nature of the transactions and any statements that her mother made to the contrary were a reflection of her wanting to conceal her true intentions from her sons. However, Sir William Blackburne felt it was equally likely that “Phyllis had no clear idea of what she should do or wanted to do or was being asked to do and no clear understanding of the position but was content to be guided by Susan”.

Sir William Blackburne concluded that he was “not persuaded” that Mrs Hart was acting “fully independently of this undue influence”. The transactions left Mrs Hart with relatively few assets and greatly reduced her income, leading Sir William Blackburne to question whether Mrs Burbidge had even considered how Mrs Hart would cope if “all of a sudden she found she needed expensive medical or home care”.

It was ordered that Mrs Burbidge should pay into her mother’s estate sufficient sums to return it to the position it would have been in had Mrs Hart not made the disputed gifts to her daughter.

Following the judgement, which was handed down in the High Court yesterday, Amanda Noyce, our inheritance disputes expert (acting for the Hart brothers) commented:

“This has been a very difficult case and has cost all parties very dearly in terms of time, money and emotion. It is always sad when family disputes end up at trial, but my clients now have a very strong bond with each other. They want to draw a line under this and now move on with their lives.” 

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