Interesting ruling in Cohabitee Property claim

The Dispute Resolution team at Smith Partnership followed a recent probate appeal decision with interest, as further guidance has been given on the maintenance claims by cohabitee upon the death of an unmarried partner.

Jak Ward, an Associate in Dispute Resolution team at Smith Partnership spoke about the case: “The recent decision in Lewis v Warner [July 2016] has developed our understanding of claims for maintenance under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

“The elderly unmarried couple had straight forward Wills and plans in place upon their deaths however a judge had to rule on whether Mr Warner was allowed maintenance following the death of his partner Mrs Blackwell, which would allow him to stay in their home until his death. Mrs Blackwell’s daughter was left all her mother’s estate in her Will which was not disputed, however the welfare of Mr Warner had to be taken into consideration.

“The case gave us guidance on claimants that do not expect to receive anything from a loved one’s estate, as well as reinforcing the point that judges have complete and unfettered discretion when determining cases for reasonable provision under the 1975 Act.”

The Case Background

Mr Warner (91 years) had cohabited with Mrs Blackwell at her home, Green Avon, in Twyning Green, Gloucestershire, since 1995. They were not married. It was anticipated by the two of them that Mr Warner would die first. In fact, he did not; Mrs Blackwell died first, in May 2014.

Mrs Blackwell had made a Will, which left her entire estate to her daughter, Mrs Lewis. Mrs Blackwell was not married, and had just one daughter, Mrs Lewis. Accordingly, the entire estate passed to Mrs Lewis by default.

Mr Warner did not expect anything from the estate, and Mrs Lewis (together with her husband) had obtained a signed declaration from him confirming that before Mrs Blackwell’s death. Mr Warner was also a man of means; he was much better-off than Mrs Blackwell, and had significant savings.

However, following Mrs Blackwell’s death Mr Warner wanted to stay in the property, as he had lived there with Mrs Blackwell for 20 years. He very much liked the property; its location; the neighbours; he had also contributed to the property’s maintenance and had made improvements to it.

Following Mrs Blackwell’s death, there were some discussions between Mr Warner and Mrs Lewis as to his purchase of the property, but Mrs Lewis’ high value of the property deterred Mr Warner from agreeing.

Property Possession Issue for owner

In January 2015, Mrs Lewis decided to issue proceedings against Mr Warner for possession, based upon trespass, together with a claim for occupation rent. Mr Warner counterclaimed under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

His case was that, under Section 1(1) (e) of the 1975 Act, he was being “maintained” by Mrs Blackwell immediately prior to her death.

The 1975 Act is relatively unhelpful to cases of this type. Reasonable financial provision is defined as “such financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the applicant to receive for his maintenance”. “Maintenance” itself has also been undefined.

Mr Recorder Gardner QC, sitting at the County Court at Gloucester and Cheltenham, heard the case. In part of his Judgment, he stated that he could not see why “maintenance” (within the meaning of the Act) did not, or could not, include putting “a roof over the head of the applicant”.

He ruled that Mrs Blackwell’s Will failed to make reasonable provision for him. Therefore, he ordered the Green Avon property to be transferred to Mr Warner for the price of £385,000 (Mrs Lewis’ surveyor’s value).

The Appeal

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Lewis appealed the decision. The appeal was heard before Mr Justice Newey at the Bristol District Registry of the High Court, Chancery Division, in July 2016. Mrs Lewis appealed on three grounds, all of which were geared around an incorrect application of the principles of maintenance.

Mr Justice Newey took the opportunity of reminding the parties that Mr Recorder Gardner QC had made: “A qualitative decision, or what is sometimes called a ‘value judgment’ [which is] particularly difficult to disturb on appeal, unless the judge of first instance has clearly proceeded on some error of principle.”

In essence, Mr Recorder Gardner QC had a wide and varied discretion to make an Order for relief that he saw fit, having heard the evidence and considered the facts on the day. A different Judge on a different day may have reached a different conclusion, but that did not make the decision in this case wrong.

Jak Ward, concluded: “The upshot of this case is that all cohabitees, regardless of their means, should be allowed to make claims under the 1975 Act. Though Mr Warner had no expectation of claiming against the estate, this did not ultimately bar him from doing so.

“The Court’s powers in these types of claims are wide and varied, but aim to provide a fair ruling for all parties. This case should serve as a timely reminder of that. The Court can be creative, so parties to litigation should be prepared to be creative too to protect their clients!”