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.
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.
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.
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
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).
“Issue children” was used to describe a class of beneficiaries in a will. But it wasn’t clear what was intended and ultimately required resolution by the Court. 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 the words “issue” and “children”. The word “issue” is a legal term meaning all of a person’s descendants; not just their children. More considerations on its meaning can be read here.
In a recent case a gift in remainder of real estate under a will had to be distributed.1 The will-maker had died in 1948. The two trustees of the estate were the surviving children of the will-maker’s only son, deceased. Their sister had pre-deceased their father, leaving children of her own.
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?
Updated 5 October 2019
Renouncing probate is what you can do if you are named as executor in a deceased person’s will, and do not want to take on the role. You are not obliged to, but you need to take steps to put that into effect as soon as practical.
Can an executor resign?
There is no requirement that a named executor in a will must accept the role of executorship, even if you had agreed with the willmaker that you would.
So in other words, can you resign as executor of an estate? Yes, providing you have not intermeddled in the estate already, see further below on what intermeddling means.
If you don’t wish to act when the time comes, and you have not dealt with estate property, you can give up the right to do so. It means you give up your appointment as an executor, commonly called renouncing probate. In renouncing probate you are renouncing the executorship, in other words resigning. It means you renounce or give up your right to apply for probate of the deceased’s will; sometimes expressed as to ‘renounce probate’.
Under Australian succession law, marriage generally cancels an existing will, subject to some exceptions.
However, if research on will making in Australia is any guide, the making or updating of existing written instructions as to what is to happen on death following the changed personal circumstances, probably won’t feature highly on the list of things to do.
Yet attending to making a valid will taking into account changed or soon to be changed circumstances is important. If not, the rules of intestacy would apply on death, and these may not produce the desired outcome.
Updated 14 October 2019.
Nieces and nephews – the general assumption
Nieces and nephews are the children of our brothers and sisters, this hardly needs saying. If someone wishes to leave a gift to their “nieces and nephews” in their will, it should be a simple matter to identify which individuals are a niece or a nephew and so entitled to share in the inheritance. However circumstances and relationship may change from the time a will is made to the date of death.
Keeping an original will safe and secure is important, especially where there is the possibility that it maybe tampered with or destroyed by others (see storing a will). A will does not come into effect until the death of the willmaker. As a practical matter, for when it is required, it is important to let executors, or trusted family or friend of its whereabouts.
Despite best intentions, sometimes an original will cannot be located. After thorough searches what else can be done? Some additional enquiries which may be made in finding a missing will are discussed here. If a deceased person has not left a valid will or in some circumstances a copy of it acceptable to the court, the intestacy rules apply. More
Why make a will and what can it do?
Dying without leaving a will, or leaving an invalid one, is to die intestate. Dying intestate means property left (the estate) is distributed according to the intestacy law. The intestacy law has been prescribed by legislation as the ‘default’ rules to apply in these circumstances. The problem is that the intestacy formula for distribution may not produce the desired outcome.