Finding love again following a failed marriage or the death of your spouse is a happy event but it can also have major legal implications. A High Court case illustrated the difficulties in respect of inheritance that can arise in so-called ‘blended’ families which include children from previous relationships.
The case concerned a man who was survived by his widow – his second wife – three children of his first marriage and one grandchild. The widow had four children by her first marriage. The couple’s most valuable asset was their home, which they owned in equal shares as tenants in common.
By their wills, they sought to ensure that their half shares in the house would in due course pass to their respective offspring. Their intention was that the surviving spouse would retain an entitlement to continue living in the house. That right was, however, subject to conditions and would terminate on the occurrence of certain events, including remarriage, cohabitation or death.
The wills also provided that, if the survivor sold the marital home and bought another home with all or part of the proceeds, the newly acquired property would be held on the same terms as its predecessor. The interpretation of that clause was problematic, prompting the widow and another executor of the man’s estate to seek a definitive judicial ruling on the issue.
The widow intended to sell the former marital home and downsize to a smaller and cheaper property. She argued that she should continue to have the benefit of the money representing her husband’s half share in the marital home until one of the conditions was met. His offspring, however, argued that, on a true reading of his will, half of any surplus cash fell to be distributed to them forthwith.
Ruling on the case, the Court noted that its duty was not to rewrite the man’s will but to give effect to his intentions. The couple’s objective in making their wills was to split their assets so that they could provide for their respective offspring whilst continuing to provide a secure roof over the head of the surviving spouse. The relevant part of the man’s will was poorly drafted and was capable of bearing more than one meaning, but the intention behind it was clear.
The Court found that, on the widow’s sale of the marital home and her purchase of a smaller property, 50 per cent of any surplus from the proceeds of sale should be distributed to the man’s children and grandchild. Any other outcome would enable the widow to release a substantial part of her own equity in the marital home, to do with as she wished, whilst at the same time keeping her husband’s offspring out of their inheritance indefinitely.