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I have just settled a case and it is one of those cases where you almost wish it hadn’t settled as it would have been very interesting to take to Court. It isn’t a professional negligence claim but a contentious probate claim that I took on last year. I will try to get the facts of the inheritance dispute straight although of course, I have changed the names.
In 1922, Mum gave birth to a baby girl. Dad was not on the scene so when she registered the child’s birth, Mum gave Alice her own surname of Morris and left the details of the father blank.
A couple of years later, Mum gave birth to a son, William. This time, the birth certificate detailed the father, a Leonard Bettelheim: A rather unusual surname. In fact, Mum was also shown on the birth certificate with this surname “formerly Morris”. There was no evidence of a marriage though. The child was known as William Bettelheim but later, he changed his name to Charlie Morris so he had the same surname as his mother and older sister.
A few years later, Mum married Peter Richards and my client was a child of that marriage. She was therefore the half sister to both Alice and William. I’ll call her Louise Richards.
In 1946, Alice married. Her marriage certificate is interesting as she calls herself Alice Morris (as per her birth certificate) and states that her father was Leonard Morris.
So there we have it. Alice and William were both born out of wedlock. According to the birth certificates, Alice Morris did not have a father but when she married, she said her father was Leonard Morris. The birth certificate for William showed his father as Leonard Bettelheim but later, William changed his surname to Morris.
Moving swiftly on, in 2011, Charlie Morris (née William Bettelheim) died without making a Will. He was unmarried and did not leave any children. Mum had died many years previously so the only close kin he had were Alice and my client. Now intestacy laws state that in intestacy where the deceased dies without leaving a spouse, children or parents, the person to inherit is a sibling of the whole blood. If there are no siblings of the whole blood, then siblings of half blood inherit.
You can probably see where this is going….
Alice’s son, Michael, agreed to stand as the Administrator of his Uncle Charlie Morris’ estate. It was not an insignificant estate either. Michael dealt with the Estate and, in the belief that Alice was Charlie’s full blood sister, gave the entirety of the Estate to his mum.
My client didn’t feel that this was right. Alice had told her previously that she did not think Leonard Bettelheim was her father. Although Alice had asked her Mum about it when she was younger, Mum had brushed the subject away. Bearing in mind having a child out of wedlock in the 1920s was frowned upon, one can understand why Mum did not dwell on the subject.
My client managed to obtain copies of all the relevant birth and marriage certificates and her doubts multiplied. One of the things we thought was telling was that to register a child’s birth, the father needed to be present. If Leonard Bettelheim was Alice’s father, he could easily have had her birth certificate amended whilst he was at the Registry Office registering William’s birth. But he hadn’t.
And this is where it was getting interesting. There was a lot of doubt that could be cast over whether or not Alice was a full or half blood sibling. From the looks of it, Michael had only ever known his Uncle as being Charlie Morris and probably jumped to the conclusion that his mother was therefore a full blood sibling of Charlie. Michael had been surprised when Louise had told him Charlie’s birth name.
Michael, through his solicitors, tried to argue that my client had to prove that Alice was not a full blood sibling. All we had were the blanks on the birth certificate which is hardly a conclusive case. Alice was by now very elderly, in care and with significant memory loss so she would not be of much help – and as she was the one benefiting from the entire estate, she would hardly wish to lose that money even if she did recall what had happened.
We did briefly consider getting DNA evidence but getting a sample from William/Charlie was now impossible.
Ultimately, we turned the argument on its head and stated that it was not Louise who had to prove that Alice was not a full blood sibling but rather it was Michael’s job as Administrator. Part of the Administrator’s job is to identify who the correct beneficiaries are and he had not made any attempt to do so.
It was at this stage that it settled. I think the Administrator could see that this sort of inheritance dispute was never going to have a full and proper answer. It really could go either way and the whole estate would be eaten up in legal costs. He made an offer to my client to settle for one quarter of the Estate. She was pleased to receive that – she had made her point.
I still think it would have been a great case to take to Court though. If we could show the burden of proof was on Michael, I feel sure we would have won. But at the end of the day, the parties probably made the right decision. At least there was some inheritance left to give away.