See You in Court
War and Peace meet Mills and Boon
The imposing Victorian Gothic interior of the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in London does justice to the building's dramatic exterior.
About a dozen times a year, a court case involving a disputed will makes headlines. Actually, hundreds of cases involving disputed wills are heard in law courts throughout England and Wales every year. The general public is treated to only the merest tip of the iceberg.
This section has links to articles detailing cases that made the national press. Brief summaries of other important or illuminating hearings are in Cases.
And the cases that appear in the national press are superficially covered. Court cases can run for several days, even weeks, and the decisions usually run to between 5,000 and 10,000 words. Newspaper accounts tend to between 400 and 800 words. Even the longest articles plumb only the shallows. Articles in this site also tend to be brief but the emphasis is placed on the critical legal issues.
Court judgements are important for solicitors for legal reasons: some set precedents, for example. For general readers, these cases - with their family disputes and large sums at stake - make for fascinating reading.
They also provide insights into what to do, and not do, with your own will. For example, many cases involve wills of testators who left it too late: they made their final wills when they were, or could plausibly be accused of being, gaga.
Many cases involve blended families, highlighting the importance of shrewd professionally-drafted wills if you or your partner have children from relationships with other people.
Did Alice Adam, elderly and infirm, know what she was doing when she left her entire estate to her doctor, who was also her lodger? The making of two wills in quick succession raised eyebrows, and Alice's relatives sought relief in court.
In one widely-reported case (Agulian v Cyganik), a Polish woman, unhappy with the measly £50,000 left to her by her Cyprus-born fiancé, sought a bigger chunk of the estate. Media reports accurately noted that her companion lived in England for most of his adult life, but only the court transcript revealed why he left Cyprus in the first place: he broke off his engagement to his Cypriot girlfriend and, in the process, insulted her family's honour. Revenge was in the air. He fled to save his life.
Ensconced in London, he became involved with more women over the years. The court transcript, rich in historical background and details about his convoluted love life, reads like a novel.
The Burden sisters also got hefty media coverage when they argued that, for inheritance purposes, they should be treated in the same way as married couples or civil partners. Their case went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.
At the end of his life, Sir Charles Clore - erstwhile owner of Sears and Selfridges, art collector and philanthropist - lived in Monaco but the tax man argued that his heart was in England, and with it, his tax liability. Several courts had to untangle a complex web of financial holdings and personal attitudes.
Christine Gill gave up an academic career to help her ageing parents run their large farm. When first her father and then her mother died, their mirror wills excluded Dr Gill and benefitted a charity that neither parent seemed to support when alive. The wills were dissected in two major and closely-watched cases.
Golda Bechal (in Blackman v Man) left her considerable estate to the Chinese owners of a Chinese restaurant rather than to her relatives. Why? Media coverage tended to suggest that Golda loved their dumplings. In fact, she had a strong personal relationship with the restaurateur and his family.
On the step-children step-parent front, Yvonne Sherrington was widely described as the Evil Stepmother after the High Court awarded her late husband's estate to his children from his first marriage. But she prevailed in the Court of Appeals. Richard Sprackling's widow, on the other hand, lost her case.
" . . . "
"'I have no idea what is in this document, even,' said the younger of the two ladies, turning to Prince Vasili and pointing to the inlaid portfolio which she held in her hand. 'I only know that the real will is in his writing-table, and this is a paper that has been forgotten.'"
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1865-69)