An early inheritance of a mortgage-free home was given to the younger daughter at the time of her marriage. It was well understood by all family members at the time that the other older daughter would receive her inheritance when the last parent died. This would be the parent’s home. Evidence was put of their parents’ expressed wishes to treat their two children fairly and to give each of them a property. They made wills to give effect to this. What could go wrong?
Probate applications require production of the original will. But what if the original can’t be found? Was the will last known in the deceased’s possession?
Sometimes a copy of an executed will (copy will) of the deceased is available. Was it the last will? Short of an intestacy, can a copy will be used in an application for probate?
In certain circumstances a Court will recognise a lost will and admit a copy of it to probate. Some instances where this has been permitted are mentioned below.
Being free to dispose of your property how and to whom you wish, that is the freedom of testamentary disposition is, as a Supreme Court judge said a “prominent feature of the Australian legal system. Its significance is both practical and symbolic and should not be underestimated.”1 Of course, like all freedoms it should be used reasonably and not abused.
An example of the significance of this feature being applied was in a situation where adult children were contesting their mother’s will for more provision. The Court said:
“…a testator is entitled to be unequal in the treatment of her children. Fairness and equality are not required by the law. Within the limits of the law, testators may dispose of their estates as they see fit. Adult children have no automatic right to share in the estate of a parent. Nor do they have an automatic right to equality between them. That may be the system in European countries, including possibly in the Balkans, but it is not the law in Australia. As I have observed on several occasions, subject to the family provision sections of the Succession Act, freedom of testamentary disposition remains an integral part of our law:….”
And following on the Judge added:
“Related to that point is a principle, …..that the courts naturally respect and give deference to the considered judgments of apparently rational and sensible testators.”2
The Court has a wide discretion in its role deciding claims for family provision. In this respect it is worth noting what another judge has said and cited subsequently3:
“The Court’s roles is not to reward an applicant, or to distribute the deceased’s estate according to notions of fairness or equity. Nor is the purpose of the jurisdiction conferred by the Act to correct the hurt feelings, or sense of wrong, felt by an applicant. Rather, the Court’s roles is of a specifc type and goes no further than the making of “adequate” provision in all the circumstances for the “proper” maintenance, education and advancement in life of an applicant.””
1. Goodsell v Wellington  NSWSC 1232, per Hallen J.
2. Kraljevic v Kraljevic  NSWSC 225, per Pembroke J.
3. Hinderry v Hinderry  NSWSC 780, per Bryson J.
21 June 2018, updated 12 February 2019
© BHS Legal
Time limits to contest a will
Time limits under succession law on family provision limit when you can contest a will. Most states and territories family provision legislation provide for some time limit, often the period is six months but it can vary.
The time period might start from the date of death or from when probate is granted. If you are thinking of challenging a deceased person’s will, and you are an eligible person under the law, it is important to be mindful of the time limit. To find out when see the legislation on family provision or testator’s family maintenance in this table, or consult a local solicitor.
But what if the time period has passed? Most legislation provides the Court with a discretion to extend the time within which to make an application, but it is not automatic and the Court’s permission to file must be sought first. Legal assistance is essential.
Contrary intention are words used in Australian succession legislation on wills and the administration of deceased estates. Some examples are given below of the range of matters where the law allows for a willmaker to express a contrary intention in their will to the statutory rule.
Where a provision of succession legislation contains these words, it means that the statutory rule can be displaced, that is not apply in the administration of their estate, if a willmaker has expressed a different intention on the matter in their will as to what they want to have happen. A contrary intention may be expressed in a will or appear in a will.
The meaning of words and phrases used by a willmaker when leaving a specific gift may adequately express their intentions, at least to them at the time. However sometimes matters connected with the gift may arise down the track during administration of the estate.
These may generate uncertainty for executors as to the right course of action when distributing the estate to the beneficiaries according to the deceased’s will. In a recent Western Australian case1 the executors sought directions from the Court concerning the interpretation of a clause disposing of farmland.
Inheritance in domestic relationships and stepchildren
A stepchild’s eligibility under the statutory rules for seeking provision from a step-parent’s deceased estate can be difficult.
In a Victorian case1 the executor of a deceased estate applied to the Supreme Court to have a claim for family provision dismissed.
The claim was brought by the adult daughter of the deceased’s former domestic partner, who had died some years before. She had been left out of his will, despite assurances and promises to the contrary. The deceased had left everything to his new domestic partner.
When a stepchild has been left out of the will of a deceased step-parent
In a Queensland case1 a stepchild sought provision out of the estate of his step-mother, a widow. Her husband, and the applicant’s father had pre-deceased her. She had no children of her own, that is no natural children, so no descendants: only the applicant her step-child, and he was an only child.
Before the applicant’s father died, he and his wife each made wills in similar terms. Basically these were all to each other, then on the first to die, in equal proportions to the the applicant and a nephew.
Many couples own their home together as joint tenants under a joint tenancy. Under a joint tenancy an important legal consequence to remember with this type of property co-ownership is the legal right of survivorship.
The right of survivorship means that when the first owner dies, their interest in the property is automatically absorbed so that the surviving owner now owns the whole property, see graphic. This is due to the operation of law and is independent of a will.
When the survivor dies, the property then passes according to their will, or if no will left, according to the intestacy rules. For people co-owning property as joint tenants, it is therefore important to review their situations and wills on a regular basis to ensure outcomes on death are what is wanted.
An estranged daughter, one of two sisters and the only children of their deceased mother, were engaged in legal proceedings in a contest over their mother’s deceased estate.1 In The Supreme Court of New South Wales, it was said that
The case provides yet another example of the high level of emotion that is generated in relation to the distribution of the property of a parent, particularly in circumstances where there is said to have been an estrangement between the Plaintiff and the deceased for some years prior to the death of the deceased.
Finding lost wills
When the original will of a deceased person can’t be found, the task of finalising their affairs and administering their estate becomes more complicated, time-consuming and costly. It is therefore worthwhile to undertake methodical searches of the deceased’s residence, thoroughly searching high and low for a will or testamentary document, including the garage, shed and the like. But what else can be done? Some suggestions follow as to where enquiries might be made. More
Some grandparents like to leave something to their grandchildren in their will. If they have step-grandchildren as well, as is increasingly likely these days, are they to be included in the will too?
If grandparents intend step-grandchildren in their extended family to benefit under their will, then to assist their executors for the efficient administration of their estate, it would be helpful if they could make that clear in their will, as a recent New South Wales case has highlighted.
When no will is left by a deceased person they are said to have died intestate. Dying intestate means that their property and things are distributed according to the legal rules on intestacy made by the Parliament in the state or territory where they lived. Sometimes a person may have left a will, but for some reason a problem arises so that not all of the property can be disposed of.
Personal items otherwise referred to as chattels in deceased estates can have important sentimental value. They may be family heirlooms passed down to keep within the family, with unique stories to tell. Personal items may have little commercial value, or maybe of significant monetary worth in the case of jewellery, antiques, artworks and the like.
What might “personal items” mean in succession law? What happens if you don’t leave any instructions as to who takes your personal things and you die intestate? Who is entitled under the law to take your personal items then? More
Costs of the parties in a recent probate litigation case1 from the South Australian Supreme Court, were ordered to be paid from the deceased’s estate. Following the trial Gray J gave reasons for making that costs order.2
Personal possessions, personal items, belongings or effects and similar expressions are often used by willmakers to leave instructions on what they want done with such things.
The executor’s role is to administer the estate of a deceased person in accordance with the terms of their will. The case law shows that occasionally a term causes uncertainty for an executor as to what the willmaker intended in their choice of words or expressions. What did they mean? What did they want to have happen, and how may their executor or personal representative resolve this dilemma with confidence that they are doing the right thing?
Executors seeking advice
If faced with a difficult dilemma as to what to do, executors can apply to the Supreme Court for an opinion, advice or direction on any question respecting the management or administration of trust property, under s 63 of the Trustee Act 1925 (NSW).
We make a will so as to provide for our loved ones; to be able to choose who will inherit our property. But writing down our intentions so that they are clear and unambiguous for others when we are no longer around, is not easy. For example take the words “issue” and “children”. The word “issue” is a legal term meaning all of a person’s descendants; not just their children.
Many couples wish to leave their estates to each other when they die, and then to their children. They usually nominate the same people to act as their executors and trustees, typically each other, and one or more of their children may be appointed as substitutes.
Putting these intentions into writing in their individual will documents therefore contain identical terms, so that each document reciprocates the contents of the other. Lawyers commonly refer to these wills as “mirror wills” or reciprocal wills.
Sometimes it is not until after a will-maker dies, when their executor is applying for a grant of probate, or seeking to administer the estate, that some kind of administrative mistake is discovered in the will. For example words used in the will, or some mis-description, operate to prevent the will-maker’s intentions from being put into effect. Resolving the problem usually requires making an application to the Court. This causes expense and delay.
It is unfortunate that such genuine clerical mistakes or ambiguities are not picked up during will-making. Can anything be done when they are discovered after death? Can they be fixed so as to preserve what the deceased intended to happen? Or will it result in an intestacy?