It is worth noting what was said in a judgment from a recent case before the Supreme Court of New South Wales about adult children contesting their mother’s will for more. The Court said the following:
“…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 he 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.”1
The Hon. Justice Pembroke, Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
Normally under Australian succession law marriage cancels a will (that is revokes in legalese) – unless the will was made in contemplation of marriage.
In addition to marriage, legislative amendments in some states/territories such as South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, now provide for people contemplating entering into a registered relationship or partnership to make arrangements in their will. However the legislation on this topic of making a will when contemplating marriage varies across the jurisdictions.
It is important to check what the provisions are for where you live if you are planning on making a will ahead of getting married or entering into a relationship. Specific legal advice and assistance should be sought. A brief look follows. More →
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.
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 range of “risks” to which a will maker, his or her property, interested parties or members of the legal profession may be subject is probably infinite in its dimensions. Risk cannot be eliminated from life, or, it seems, from death.“
The Hon Justice Lindsay, Equity Division, Supreme Court of New South Wales, Seminar presentation to the Succession Law Committee of the Law Society of New South Wales, 2013.
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.
Leaving such a testamentary document raises important questions. Did the deceased approve of the contents of what is a draft will, and so intended it to be their last will – but simply didn’t get around to executing it according to the legal formalities? Or were they unsure and wanted alterations? Can an unsigned will, that is an unexecuted will, or informal will, as lawyers often call them, even be admitted to probate by the Court? The Court’s dispensing powers are discretionary – it depends on the circumstances in each case.
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.
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.
Personal items 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).
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?
Under Australian succession law, marriage generally cancels an existing will, subject to some exceptions.
Getting married is an important life event. There is a lot to organise, in addition to making arrangements for the wedding ceremony itself.
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.
Who can witness or attest the signing of a will for it to be valid in law? And what must they do?
The legal formalities to make a valid will require the will-maker to sign their will in the presence of at least two people, acting as formal witnesses to the event. Executing a will in front of witnesses fulfils a protective function.
Witnessing a will – key points:
1. The will-maker must sign the will first in front of two or more witnesses, all present at the same time and in the same place. 2. Witnesses must be mentally competent and be able to see the will-maker make their signature, (the attestation) or other sign as appropriate. 3. At least two witnesses having attested the will then sign their names; in confirmation that the will-maker’s signature, made in their presence was genuine. 4. Anyone likely to inherit under the will, ie a beneficiary, including their spouse/partner should not witness it – although the law has changed in some states and in others exceptions are permitted. Seek legal advice.