A dark secret and a guilty conscience
14th December 2016
D died, leaving his worldly goods to his brother and sister and a dark secret in the form of an unrelated woman, X, who claimed that D had been maintaining her financially for many years, to assuage his guilty conscience. She alleged that, when she was a young child, D had subjected her to serious and regular sexual abuse.
D’s family had no knowledge of the alleged abuse. The only evidence was X’s own witness statement and her historic medical records which documented a tragic life history and established that X had alleged abuse at the hands of an unnamed family acquaintance several times over the years. X had, however, maintained an on-off (non-sexual) relationship with D after the abuse ended and had helped him with payment of bills and shopping. She even visited him in hospital at the end of his life.
X commenced proceedings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 on the basis that she was being maintained by D immediately before his death and that the will failed to make reasonable provision for her.
Under the Act, someone was “maintained” by the deceased only if the deceased was making a substantial contribution towards the reasonable needs of that person.
In determining whether the will makes reasonable financial provision for an applicant, the court has to consider several factors. Those most clearly relevant on X’s claim were:
- X’s financial resources and needs
- D’s obligations and responsibilities towards X
- X’s physical or mental disability
- The duration and extent of D’s maintenance of X
X claimed that D paid her up to £1,000 per week during the period of the abuse and thereafter over £100,000 in cash and kind. There was no evidence that D ever had the financial resources to fund such disposals. X could prove neither the level or maintenance nor the source of the payments but, equally, B and S’s children could not deny maintenance, having no contrary evidence.
Moreover, D had to prove maintenance “immediately before the death of the deceased”, Had D been maintaining X immediately before his death on this basis?
The only evidence of maintenance was several cheques, dated from the last months of D’s life and made payable to X in sums totalling around £15,000. The cheques were probably signed by D but the remaining details were completed by X. X advanced no clear evidence in her statement as to the circumstances under which the cheques were written out beyond that D wanted her to have the money. Was this maintenance? Or the proceeds of blackmail or theft?
X’s evidence on childhood sexual abuse was strong enough to pass the ‘balance of probabilities’ test and there was a likelihood that the court would find that D had indeed paid her sums of money over the years. There remained significant doubt as to whether she could prove maintenance immediately before D’s death. Further, X claimed a sum of money to cover counselling and therapy: was this recoverable as “maintenance” under the Act?
In litigation, the strengths of one case are the weaknesses of the other’s. Had X won at trial, the beneficiaries faced losing most of the estate in the award and legal costs. Had she lost, she would have recovered nothing at all.
Doubts as to the outcome united the parties in a desire to settle. An award inclusive of costs in full and final settlement was agreed. While X recovered less than she sought, B and S can now divide the remaining estate under the will.
+44 (0) 20 7725 8027