Three recent cases involving disputed wills, shed light on the rights of adult children in making claims on the estate of a deceased parent. Their claims have not gone well.
Joshua Piercy received no provision from the estate of his father John Piercy, which was valued at $4.1 million when he died in January 2016.
A family law property order made between the deceased and his ex-wife reduced the estate to $743,000. That amount was to pass to the deceased’s second wife.
The son and the father, who had worked together running a service station in Ballina, in northern New South Wales, had a falling out about a year before the father’s death and were estranged at the time of the death. Joshua Piercy was aged 42 at the time of his father’s death,
John Piercy started a relationship with another woman in 2013, separating from his wife later the same year. The breakdown of the relationship between father and son was related to these events.
In a decision handed down last month, the New South Wales Supreme Court rejected Joshua Piercy’s claim that he was entitled to part of the estate, based on its view that he was reasonably well set-up in life and did not need support.
In a note to clients, lawyers Michael Labiris and Erika Reese of Moores, say the case highlights the fact that in order for an adult child to successfully challenge a parent’s will the child needs to be able to demonstrate financial need.
In another recent case, an elderly widow, Cecily Reeves, made a will leaving her estate to her daughters Glenda Reeves and Roseann Firth. The will stipulated that Glenda Reeves would receive two-thirds of the $5.5 million estate and Firth one-third.
When Cecily Reeves died in 2017, Firth brought a claim seeking half the estate, arguing that one-third was inadequate. By the time the case got to the Victorian Supreme Court the value of the estate had increased to $8.1 million.
The court rejected the claim, finding that Cecily Reeves did not have a duty to treat her daughters equally in her will. The fact that the estate was derived in part from inheritance did not change that situation.
The court also found that Firth had not established need or any other consideration to warrant further provision. The will “left her an amount that was sufficient for her needs.”
Labiris and Reese say: “A court cannot rewrite a will purely because the distribution is unequal between family members or because someone feels the will in unfair.
“Family provision legislation is designed to provide proper maintenance where a will or intestate distribution is inadequate for a person’s needs. While a parent generally has a moral obligation to provide for their children, this does not equate to a testamentary duty to treat their children equally.”
In a third case this year, Margaret Rawnsley died leaving an estate worth $297,000. She left $34,000 to her daughter Jill Wengdal and the balance to her other daughter Susan Rawnsley.
Wengdal had for many years been independent and self-sufficient. The mother had told her lawyer that Susan Rawnsley did everything for her and was “the only one who cares”.
Jill challenged the will in a case that went to the NSW Supreme Court. She argued that Susan had a car, a home, superannuation, a secure income and few needs. She argued that the estate should be divided evenly. The court dismissed the claim and ordered Jill to pay the estate’s claims.
The court said: “Merely because some financial relief could be given to assist her, this does not mean that there is justification for judicial interference with the disposition made in the will of the deceased.”
Labiris and Reese say: “If a parent does wish to dispose of their estate unequally, they should recognise that there is always a risk of litigation. They should get professional estate planning advice to reduce the risk of challenge.”