The High Court has come to the aid of a family whose grief at the death of a gifted entrepreneur in a motorbike crash was compounded by the discovery of a ‘clerical error’ in his £6.9 million Will.
Before the businessman’s death at the young age of 47, he had expressed the wish that his estate, which included his £100,000 collection of classic cars and bikes and £5.4 million in shares, should be divided equally between his partner and five children.
His intention was to establish, by means of his Will, a discretionary family trust which would serve the dual purpose of minimising Inheritance Tax (IHT) liabilities and ensuring that his children did not inherit their fortunes until they were old enough to cope with such large sums of money.
However, the executors of his estate were constrained to seek relief from the Court after it emerged that ‘something had gone seriously wrong’ with the drafting of his Will. The solicitor who wrote it up had ‘simply copied’ a precedent document from her firm’s library, unaware that it was ‘not only inappropriate but would frustrate what she intended to achieve’.
The lawyer had failed to appreciate that the unmarried businessman had no spouse who could benefit from an IHT exemption. The error meant that, on the most obvious interpretation of the Will, it would not be possible to place any of his assets into the trust.
The Court found that the mistake fitted comfortably within the concept of a ‘clerical error’ and that, on a literal interpretation of the document, it could not be viewed as plausibly representing the businessman’s wishes. It was ‘desirable and appropriate’ to broadly interpret it in such a way as to achieve his clear objectives. In achieving that result, the Court found that it was legitimate to take into account extraneous evidence as to his intentions.
The executors had sought the ‘liberal application of red ink’ to the will. However, the Court found that ambiguities in the document left room for a broad interpretation to reflect the businessman’s wishes. In those circumstances, it was unnecessary to rectify its actual wording.
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