With so many people not having a Will it is often not until someone gets close the end of their life that they realise that they should have ‘put their house in order’ but it’s too late. This often leads to people making deathbed gifts. This is a gift of property or assets which take effect on a person’s death and falls outside of their Will.
Deathbed gifts, by their nature, can be difficult to prove as generally it is something that occurs at a sensitive time when people are pretty emotional and at their most vulnerable. The bequest is usually something that is discussed verbally. As a result there is often little evidence to prove that the gift was made.
A recent such case was highlighted in the media:
Ellen Exler, a 91 year old widow, was cared for by her brother, Stephen Keeling (aged 86) who would visit her regularly. Just four days before her death, Mr Keeling arranged for Mrs Exler to move into a nursing home. This was against her wishes and that of the other family members. Mrs Exler’s estate was valued in the region of £1 million which included her family home.
Mr Keeling claimed, after Mrs Exler’s death, that she had told him that she wanted him to have the family home when she knew she was dying. He claimed that she had given him the deeds to the home. Mr Keeling explained that Mrs Exler had told him that she would rather him have the family home than anyone else. In this event the property would have passed to him and therefore would not form part of her estate that the remaining beneficiaries under the Will would benefit from.
Mrs Exler’s other brother, Frank, and her nieces challenged the claim brought by Stephen. They produced evidence to suggest that Mrs Exler did not want Mr Keeling to inherit any part of her estate and had used the phrase “he would never get my house, over my dead body.”
The Court upheld that the deathbed gift was never made by Mrs Exler. What persuaded the Court was that Stephen Keeling was unable to provide evidence that the conversation gifting him the property had occurred. Mr Keeling was ordered to repay to Mrs Exler’s estate all the rents he had received from renting the family home after Mrs Exler had passed away.
This case demonstrates the stringent evidence required to establish whether a deathbed gift has occurred.
For a deathbed gift to be binding the gift must:
- be made by a person in contemplation of their impending death
- be made to take effect on the death of the donor
- be parted with, or delivered to, the intended recipient in some way