In the case of King v Dubrey  EWHC 2083 (Ch) (“King”)
The recently decided case of King has provided further guidance to anyone contemplating a challenge to the validity of a deathbed gift.
A deathbed gift is made by a donor immediately before their death. For the gift to be valid, it is necessary for the donor to have contemplated their impending death at the time the gift was made.
King concerned 7 animal charities who sought to challenge the gift of a house from an aunt to her nephew (the claimant). Under a previous Will the charities had been named as beneficiaries.
The claimant contended that he had moved into his aunt’s property to care for her up until her death. Shortly before her death, the aunt had signed two invalid Wills to evidence that she wished for the claimant to have the property following her death. The claimant relied on these Wills and a previous conversation with his aunt in which she had given him the property’s title deeds and told him “this will be yours when I go”, to evidence his aunt’s testamentary intention.
The charities challenged the gift’s validity by submitting that the claimant had been involved in the preparation of the invalid Wills and that no witnesses were able to corroborate the claimant’s evidence. Furthermore, the charities raised questions concerning the claimant’s dishonest character by making reference to his previous custodial sentence for breaching a court order when he acted as a company director whilst disqualified.
The strongest argument for challenging the gift’s validity however, was that the aunt had not contemplated her impending death when it was made. To support this claim, the charities relied on the point that the aunt had not been seriously ill at the time of the gift, she had not visited any doctors before making the gift and she had died between 4-6 months after the conversation with the claimant took place.
The court rejected the charities’ argument that death had not been contemplated and viewed the invalid Wills as evidence that the aunt had become increasingly preoccupied with her impending death. Previously, case law had stated that contemplation of death in ‘the near future’ was necessary and the maximum length of time between gift and death had been 4 months.
King demonstrates a relaxation by the courts relating to the requirement for contemplation of death to be in the mind of the donor. Given the evidence relied on by the charities and in consideration of deathbed gifts being particularly susceptible to abuse, King evidences a broadening approach from the courts to accept their validity and a reduced level of scrutiny being applied to uncorroborated evidence.
A decision of whether to appeal has yet to be taken by the charities, but those wishing to challenge a deathbed gift should do so with caution given this latest decision.
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