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Making sure one’s property is divided up according to one’s wishes after death needs careful planning. It’s not good enough to just leave a letter and even a properly constructed will may not be sufficient. The recent judgment in the case involving the estate of the late Bernard Matthews, the turkey baron, shows how difficult things can get. 

Mr Matthews left property in England and France. In broad terms, he left the bulk of his English estate to his natural son, George, and a French chateau to the woman he had lived with for over 20 years. He also left a letter addressed to three adopted children and George, requesting them to forgo their rights under French law to a share in the chateau, as he wanted his partner to own it outright.

French inheritance law

However, his adopted children (who had earlier benefitted from asset transfers while Mr Matthews was alive) chose to ignore this request and exercised their inheritance rights under French law. They then went on to sue the English estate to pay the inheritance tax due, as Mr Matthews had inserted a clause in his English will instructing that the tax be paid by the children, clearly intending this to mean that his partner would not have to find the money.

UK inheritance tax

While the courts were in no position to put into effect Mr Matthews’s broad intention to see his partner inherit the chateau all by herself, as French law is quite unambiguous, the English court did hold that Mr Matthews would not have intended that his English estate should pay the children’s inheritance tax in the event that they ignored his wishes and exercised their inheritance rights under French law.

The Bernard Matthews story is as clear a case as you could find to illustrate that relying on family goodwill is an unwise thing to do and Mr Matthews should certainly have had a more watertight arrangement in place.

If you would like advice on similar issues or any other matters concerning wills, contact Tamara Hasson on 01179 045030 or[email protected] for further information.