Animal charities succeed in overturning High Court ruling in £350,000 legacy case

The judgment of 2011 meant that a man could inherit his late aunt's house despite it being left to seven animal charities in her will

Royal Courts of Justice
Royal Courts of Justice

The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court judgment that a man could inherit a £350,000 Hertfordshire home despite it being left to seven animal charities in the owner’s will.

In July, the High Court found in favour of Kenneth King, who claimed he was given the house as a death-bed gift by June Fairbrother, his animal-loving aunt, in April 2011.

This meant that the charities named in the will – Redwings, the Chilterns Dog Rescue Society, the Blue Cross, the PDSA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Donkey Sanctuary and World Animal Protection – would receive nothing.

After an appeal by Redwings and the CDRS, the Court of Appeal said that enabling Fairbrother’s will to be overturned by the death-bed pledge under a legal doctrine known as donatio mortis causa would have bypassed all the safeguards provided by the Wills Act and the Law of Property Act.

The judge, Lord Justice Jackson, said that if King’s donatio mortis causa claim had been upheld, Fairbrother’s will would have been largely superseded and the bulk of her estate would have passed to someone who had not even been named as a beneficiary in the will.

King claimed that Fairbrother had on a number of occasions told him the property would be his after her death. But Lord Justice Jackson said that if Fairbrother had been dissatisfied with her existing will and suddenly wished to leave everything to King, she could have gone to her solicitor to make a new will.

"June was an intelligent retired police officer," the ruling said. "There is not the slightest reason why she should not have taken that course."

The judgment acknowledged that Fairbrother had supported animal charities for many years. King was awarded £75,000 by way of acknowledgement that insufficient provision had been made for him in the will.

A spokeswoman for Redwings said that providing Fairbrother’s home sold for the £350,000 at which it had been valued, £19,000 of the proceeds would be awarded to Fairbrother’s friends and family, £75,000 would go to King and the remaining £256,000 would be divided equally among the seven charities, giving them about £37,000 each, before costs.

She said that the horse charity did not yet know if it would recover its costs, which it does not yet know in full, but that it had appealed last year’s ruling on principle.

"It’s never been about the money," she said. "We decided it was such an important point of law that we just could not leave it. It was a decision that each charity had to take for itself. June was one of our supporters and we knew how much she loved animals; we thought it was important that her wishes, which she had made formally, weren’t washed over."

David Lewis, chairman of Chilterns Dog Rescue Society, said in a statement: "It was a brave decision for a small charity such as ours to go to appeal. However, the society was desperately unhappy with the original judgment because it steamrollered June’s rightful wishes, and we are therefore both pleased and relieved at the outcome."

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