Clifford Gouldson Lawyers

The harsh light that litigation shines on your Estate

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A recent, long running estate litigation highlights exactly why ‘DIY’ or homemade Wills are best avoided – particularly if you have a “complicated” personal life you would rather didn’t become fodder for the media.
Peter was a wealthy man when he died at home, on 29 August 2015, aged 100 years. 
Peter left:

  • a net estate estimated to be worth about $76 million which he made largely in the timber industry and via a number of smart investments;
  • a Will dated 25 January 2000 and a further 22 codicils (a legal document which varies part of a Will) and other testamentary documents - all prepared by Peter himself; and
  • a multitude of people claiming an interest in his estate.
Litigation relating to his estate started soon after he passed away.
Peter’s background and legal skills
Peter married late in life. His wife predeceased him and he had no children of his own. However, he had a stepson, from this marriage.
Peter was a successful businessman and investor but his judgement when it came to relationships may not have been as good.
Evidence which came to light over the course of litigation included that after the death of his wife he had started a sexual relationship with a lady, Peta, who was both his niece by marriage and his stepson’s cousin.
In spite of clearly having sufficient funds to pay for an experienced estate planning lawyer, Peter prepared his own Will based on an earlier Will, which had been prepared by a solicitor.
Confident in his own legal abilities, and wishing to avoid paying legal fees, Peter took it upon himself to prepare his Will, and all the subsequent codicils, without any legal assistance or advice.
The effect
Peter was certainly an enthusiastic Will maker but his strategy for minimising legal fees backfired at the expense of his estate and the emotional toll of those people he left behind. His poorly drafted documents served as a beacon to controversy, the engagement of numerous litigation lawyers as well as laying bare his relationship with Peta which was published in various newspapers and other media outlets.
The Executors had a herculean task in determining what was to be considered the deceased’s testamentary documentation, who were the appropriate beneficiaries and family provision claimants.  During the course of the matter a mediation was held and was attended by around 40 participants.
Probate was finally granted on the Will and 14 of the 22 codicils some 3 years after the date of death.  The Executors then had to seek the interpretative powers of the Court to assist with determining the meaning of a number of the documents admitted to Probate - a matter in which the Court noted that the documents were essentially peculiar products of an imagination only vaguely familiar with legal language.
Three years after his death, the final claim - that of Peta, did eventually settle with those administering his estate. The terms of the settlement remain confidential, leaving the public to guess at the outcome which, on the back of the earlier poor media exposure, left Peter’s reputation further damaged.
A costly and embarrassing legacy
While the impact of poorly prepared or do it yourself Wills may not always be quite so costly and such good tabloid media material it is very common to find these documents simply fail to achieve what the deceased person wished to happen.  DIY Wills can often also leave heartache and bitterness for those who have to resolve any confusion or disputes that arise.
In this case, Peter, who could easily have engaged an experienced estate planning lawyer who could have guided him through the process of properly providing for his loved ones could have discretely provided for any existing relationships and perhaps even established a long standing legacy trust with his considerable wealth that would have been an outstanding legacy for someone who had achieved so much in business. 
Sadly, he is instead likely be remembered for foolhardy penny pinching and an embarrassing personal revelation about his relationship later in life.

For more information contact our Tax, Structures & Planning Team.

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