Judgment has recently been handed down by the Court in Draguignan, Provence, in the estate of Lady Wendy Blake, settling a dispute between Lady Blake's children, who had been effectively disinherited after years of bad blood, and a neighbour, Falcon Hawkins, who had befriended Lady Blake in her later years.
The English charity Dogs Trust was a party to the litigation as Lady Blake had chosen it to be the main beneficiary of her French and Swiss assets under an earlier will.
A complex web of legacies
Lady Blake had two children by her first marriage, Ricky and Tracy. After the death of her first husband, from whom she inherited a considerable estate, she married Sir Thomas Blake. The couple later moved to the south of France where they lived until Sir Thomas' death in 2008. The year before, in 2007, Lady Blake made a will leaving her worldwide estate to Dogs Trust.
At some point around 2001, Lady Blake and Sir Thomas became acquainted with Falcon Hawkins and his wife. At first, the couple helped them with miscellaneous jobs and administrative tasks. However their relationship became one of close confidence and this continued after Sir Thomas died. There was evidence to suggest Lady Blake was in frail health for a number of years prior to her death. The relationship with her children was difficult, and a rift between her, Ricky and Tracy deepened after her move to France.
In 2009, following the death of Sir Thomas, Lady Blake transferred some shares in a company owned by the couple, which held a number of French properties, into Falcon's name. She also named him residuary legatee under a new, professionally drafted, English will disposing of her UK assets.
A few years later (the exact year was never established as the document was so unclear), Lady Blake allegedly attempted to dispose of her French home, her French bank accounts and some personal items to Falcon and his wife and children by way of a third 'holographic' will. A holographic will is one which is entirely in the testator's handwriting and is relatively common in civil law countries such as France.
The final strand of the case centred on the existence of a life insurance policy, taken out by Lady Blake in 2011 for a premium of nearly €1.5 million, which paid out a monthly sum of €10,000 into an account held jointly with Falcon.
Lady Blake passed away in July 2015. Upon finding out about their mother's death and the fact that they were to receive practically nothing from her estate, Ricky and Tracy applied to court in France, firstly, to seek a ruling on the law applicable to Lady Blake's succession, and secondly, to challenge the validity of the insurance policy and the holographic will.
Caught by forced heirship
Even though there was evidence to show that Lady Blake retained a home in the UK, did not intend to spend the rest of her life in France and spoke very poor French, the French court ruled that French succession rules, namely forced heirship, applied to her whole estate (except for the UK real estate).
This meant that she could only freely dispose of one third of her property, with the rest reserved for her children.
Moreover, the insurance policy could be set aside as an attempt to circumvent the fixed 'portions' which must pass to specified relatives on death, known as forced heirship.
Even if it could only benefit from the one third share that forced heirship allows to pass freely, the legacy to Dogs Trust would still be very valuable if (i) the life insurance policy was shown to be a sham and (ii) the holographic will invalid.
The French will
The court found that the holographic will was indeed invalid. The primary reason for this was the illegibility of the date, which rendered the will invalid under French law. Moreover, it was clear, and confirmed by a handwriting expert, that Lady Blake had not written the second page of the will.
The insurance policy
Importantly for the value in the estate, the Court ordered that the money spent on the life insurance policy be reintegrated into the estate. Under French law, the premium paid for such a policy is normally outside succession and forced heirship rules. For this exemption to be disapplied, the policy purchase had to be of a 'manifestly exaggerated' character. The Court considered that, because the premiums represented between one third and one half of Lady Blake's total estate, this high threshold was met.
Entering into litigation is not something charities do lightly – and where they do it is important to keep the principles set out in the Charity Commission's guidance Charities and litigation – a guide for trustees in mind. But equally the mere fact that there is risk (inevitable in litigation) does not make it a proper exercise of discretion to do nothing.
A careful balancing exercise justified the investment and ultimately ensured that Lady Blake's wish to benefit Dogs Trust has survived.
Dogs Trust was advised by Phineas Hirsch, Lauren Rapeport and Paul Hewitt of Withers LLP, and represented in France by Eugenie Berthet of CPC Associes, Paris.