Court rejects man's late attempt to inherit his brother's estate

The High Court has rejected a man’s claim that he was entitled to inherit his brother’s estate instead of the brother’s wife. The claim was raised nine years after the final estate accounts had been signed.

The issue arose because in September 2002, the deceased had executed a will bequeathing his whole estate to his brother. However, following his marriage in 2010, he had instructed solicitors to draft a new will, but before executing it he died suddenly and unexpectedly in February 2011. In August 2011, the wife had obtained letters of administration, stating that the deceased had died intestate, domiciled in England and Wales. The estate was administered, and final estate accounts signed in April 2012. The estate included a property that the wife part-exchanged to buy a new home in 2015.

In October 2021, the brother claimed that he was the sole beneficiary of the estate under the 2002 will. He claimed that at the dates of the deceased's marriage and death, he had been domiciled in Scotland and the validity of the will was therefore governed by Scottish law, according to which the will had not been revoked by the marriage and had still been valid at the date of death.

The court dismissed the claim on the ground of laches – the legal principle that an unreasonable delay in bringing legal action could prejudice the opposing party. The brother had initially told the wife that he wanted nothing from the estate. It was likely that he had changed his mind after events in his life which impacted upon his emotional state and financial stability. He sought to explain his significant delay in bringing the claim on the basis that he had been unable to obtain a copy of the will. However, he had not asked the wife for a copy. If he had done so, she would have provided it. It was likely that he had deliberately chosen not to request a copy for tactical reasons: he had deliberately concealed his claim from her.

The wife had not been guilty of improper conduct in her administration of the estate: she had not ignored or concealed the will. The brother's delay in prosecuting the claim was both gross and inexcusable and the wife had not caused or materially contributed to it. The estate had long ago been distributed and the wife had sought to rebuild her life around the inheritance she received. Any recovery claim was bound to fail because of laches so there would be no useful purpose in allowing it to continue.

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