Retired headmistress fails to establish former neighbour treated her as child
A retired headmistress has failed in her attempt to claim financial provision from the estate of a former neighbour on the ground that she was his ‘honorary daughter’.
What does ‘treated as a child of the family’ mean?
Since the 1975 Act claim came into force someone treated ‘as a child of the family’ in relation to any marriage (or, since 2005, a civil partnership) has been able to seek reasonable provision from the deceased’s estate.
To eliminate perceived discrimination against single parent families, that category was extended in 2014 following consultation to include ‘any family in which the deceased at any time stood in the role of a parent’.
Fears were expressed during the Law Commission’s consultation that such an extension might open the floodgates. One submission expressed concern that ‘assisting an elderly neighbour … should not of itself justify an application under the 1975 Act’.
The Law Commission responded:
‘We think that these concerns are more hypothetical than real. A court would not find that a child who was simply sponsored by the deceased or with whom the deceased undertook voluntary work was treated as a child of the family, unless the quality and the intensity of that help could be characterised as parental. Nor would simply helping an elderly neighbour, without much more, merit such a description … there may a risk of speculative, ill-judged litigation to test the boundaries of this new category but this is no reason not to cure what appears to us … an undesirable anomaly … .’
Mrs Wells’ case
In Wells v Chorus Law and Others, Mrs Wells, a retired headmistress, brought a claim against Mr Gould’s estate. She and her husband had been Mr Gould’s neighbours between 1992 and 1997, when Mrs Wells and her family moved first to Reading and then to Jersey, where she now lives. In 1992 she would have been 39 and he would have been 59.
The evidence showed that Mr Gould was an only child who never married or had any partner or children and was ‘largely a recluse’.
Mrs Wells produced letters in which Mr Gould referred to her as ‘HD’. She claimed this stood for ‘honorary daughter’.
The Judge said that it was clear from Mr Gould’s letters that he was extremely fond of Mrs Wells. In one letter Mr Gould wrote:
‘You mean so very much to me, Christine, I have been richly blessed in your loving and our friendship.’
Mrs Wells visited Mr Gould and continued to do so after she moved to Reading and to Jersey. She sent him items such as thermal underwear and socks and, late in life, arranged for him to be registered at a GP surgery. Mr Gould took Mrs Wells to see his family’s burial plot.
Mr Gould died in December 2016 aged 84. Mrs Wells does not receive anything under his Will.
Is this enough?
The Judge found that Mrs Wells was ‘undoubtedly very kind’ and regarded her actions as clearly those of someone who does genuinely care for another, but the Judge had to decide whether these actions amounted to Mrs Wells being ‘considered a child of the family’.
There is little authority on interpreting the phrase ‘child of the family’ and no decided case since the 2014 amendment allowing claims by someone treated as a child of a single parent family.
The Judge needed to be satisfied that:
1. there was a family in which Mr Gould and Mrs Wells were members; and
2. in that family, Mr Gould treated Mrs Wells as his daughter.
Although Mr Gould relished receiving Mrs Wells’ letters, cakes and marmalade, there was no evidence that he ever bought her presents. He never visited her house when they were neighbours let alone once she had moved away. The Judge accepted Mrs Wells’ evidence that she visited Mr Gould but questioned whether the visits were frequent. Mrs Wells did not have keys to Mr Gould’s property.
Mr Gould’s property where he lived as a recluse until he died was ‘in a dreadful condition and could only be described as hazardous and unsafe’. The Judge said there was no evidence that Mrs Wells ever suggested that central heating or hot running water be installed or work done to the property to make it more habitable.
The Judge also thought it significant that Mr Gould’s Will was homemade and there was no reason why he could not have made a new Will, to benefit Mrs Wells, if he had wanted (witnessed, for example, by the butchers where he went twice a week).
The Judge was not persuaded that Mr Gould was ever part of a family with Mrs Wells.
In her assessment, he had never appeared to behave towards her as a parent would. Merely calling her ‘honorary daughter’ did not satisfy the test, namely that he had ‘assumed the position of parent with its attendant responsibilities and privileges’:
‘I have not been satisfied that Mr Gould was ever part of a family with her, that he ever behaved as a parent towards her or that he ever treated as a child in that family. I am satisfied that they do not exemplify “the privileges and duties of two persons who, in regard to each other, stand in the relationship of parent and child”.’
The Defendants in Wells v Chorus Law successfully argued that Mrs Wells’ attempt to extend the term ‘child of the family’ to include the connection between her and Mr Gould constituted precisely the ‘speculative, ill-judged litigation’ to test the boundaries anticipated by the Law Commission back in 2014.
The decision will be welcomed by many who are concerned by the onward creep of interference in testamentary freedom.
Withers represented the successful defendants.
The litigation resulted in a costs order against Mrs Wells. Mrs Wells subsequently claimed against her former solicitors for negligence.