10 March 2016

Will disputes: don't let an error invalidate your will

Paul Hewitt
Partner | UK

This video discusses a topical will dispute success that we recently secured for our client The Royal Society. A small geographical error made in the will of the scientific genius Michael Crowley-Milling, left his extended family arguing over his intentions. We ensured that the legacy he carved out was safeguarded, as he wished, for the charity.

Video transcript

So the story of Mr Crowley-Milling's will involves a brilliant scientist who made a basic geographical error which could have had potentially disastrous consequences.

Mr Crowley-Milling has been described as a scientific genius and was involved in inventing the world's first computer touch screens, but actually the majority of his wealth came from the sale of his vintage Alfa Romeo car which was given to him as a 21st birthday present and sold for a staggering two million pounds.

Because he had worked at Switzerland he had a Swiss will. He then made an English will. Both wills left everything to the Royal Society. Unfortunately, to avoid confusion, the English will referred to 'everything in the United Kingdom'. But he had actually put over a million pounds in bank accounts in Jersey and the Isle of Man and those islands are not part of the United Kingdom so, strictly read that money either went to his extended family or the revenue. So the charity had to go to Court to put that mistake right.

The Judge looked at all of the circumstances in which Mr Crowley-Milling made his will and he had decided that he agreed with the charity, that Mr Crowley-Milling intended to dispose of all of his assets under the two wills, including those in the Isle of Man and Jersey.

So in this case, the judge said that the words 'United Kingdom' should be understood to include the Isle of Man and Jersey and this meant that the money passed under his will to the charity, rather than outside it to his family.

This is good news because it means that the Court will try and interpret a will in a way that means it carries out the wishes of the person who made it. I think that the case is an important example of the Court intervening so that the intended beneficiary gets the money that it should get – not allowing technical words to defeat that intention.

Mr Crowley-Milling was incredibly secretive about the assets that he had. He gave his solicitors lists in sealed envelopes. At the same time, his solicitors didn't ask him exactly what assets he had and where.So the lesson is that you have to be clear and open with your solicitor. Tell them exactly what assets you have, where they are and also tell them who is in your family, even if you don't intend to leave them anything.

A reminder to solicitors that they do need to double-check clients' instructions to make sure that mistakes like this don't happen. Ask questions and just make sure that nothing is left to chance.

Category: Video