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Promises Promises - Can lead to inheritance!

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The High Court in London has this week had to make a decision in a very unusual inheritance dispute claim.

The carer of a wealthy widow became involved in a dispute over her £1.3 million fortune, in a case which involved a genealogist from BBC show Heir Hunters.  Tanya Vasileva looked after her friend, Gertrude Stanley, for years before she died at the age of 89, without leaving a Will.  It was believed that Mrs Stanley, a Holocaust survivor, had no living relatives.  Genealogist Peter Birchwood, from Heir Hunters, took over acting on behalf of the estate, and traced two distant cousins.  These cousins were entitled, under the intestacy rules, to inherit the whole estate, after the genealogist took a share.

Miss Vasileva argued that Mrs Stanley had promised her London flat to her in return for her years of care, for which she received no wages.  She had lived in the flat with her, and continued to do so after she died.  Mr Birchwood argued Miss Vasileva should be evicted from the property, and pay £50,000 back to the estate, for her years of rent-free occupation.

Judge Mark Raeside QC, after considering the evidence, accepted that Mrs Stanley had promised the flat to her carer, and that Miss Vasileva relied on that promise to her detriment, by caring for the deceased, for no remuneration.  The judge awarded her the sum of £20,000 from the estate, plus her legal costs, and dismissed Mr Birchwood’s claim against her for rent. But he also ruled that the value of the care provided by Miss Vasileva to be only £70,000, compared with the £160,000 value of the flat, and said she would have to leave, to allow it to be sold.

The legal argument, more formally known as promissory estoppel, required the Court to hear evidence that the promise was firstly made by Mrs Stanley, and then relied upon by Miss Vasileva, to her detriment.  The Court heard that the promise had been repeated several times after Mrs Stanley had been in hospital, and thereafter required care, and accepted that the free care provided was sufficient reliance on the promise.

This is a rare argument to see succeed in inheritance claims, as the evidence has to be strong enough to convince the Court that it was more likely than not that the promise was made.  Often these promises are made between just two people, without witnesses, and these cases can be very difficult to prove.  As a solicitor specialising in these types of cases, and a member of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists, I think this is a very interesting case, and highlights just one way that claims can be brought against an estate.

If you think you may have a claim against someone’s estate, it is important that you seek specialist legal advice as early as possible.  For a fixed fee of £49.95, you can have a 30 minute appointment with myself, either on the telephone, or face to face, depending on your preference.  We will take some details from you before the appointment, and I will then discuss your case with you, and what your options are.  If your case is something that we can then help you further with, we can then discuss your funding options with you.  For cases like this, we can sometimes consider a “no win no fee” agreement, depending on the circumstances of your case.

By Heather Korwin-Szymanowska, solicitor in the Will, trust and estate disputes team