Elderly man wins right to buy home he shared with deceased cohabitee from her estate
A recent probate appeal decision means an elderly man, who wants to carry on living in the house owned by his deceased cohabitee partner despite the heartfelt opposition of her daughter, will be allowed to do so.
The case is an important one because Mrs Audrey Blackwell left 93-year-old Mr Thomas Warner, with whom she had lived at her home in Gloucestershire for 20 years, nothing in her Will when she died at the age of 82.
Mrs Blackwell's daughter, Lynn Lewis, who had inherited the entire £518,000 estate after her mother's death, claimed Mr Warner was a 'trespasser' in the home her parents 'acquired by their efforts and thrift' and said his unwelcome presence in the house was preventing her from grieving properly.
But Mr Warner, allegedly a millionaire in his own right, made a claim on Mrs Blackwell's estate for 'reasonable provision' under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 - unusual in itself as such claims are usually brought by impoverished family or loved ones left out of Wills.
The Court of Appeal upheld a ruling that Mr Warner, who said he'd spent the happiest years of his life at the house and did not want to move out, be allowed to buy the home he and Mrs Blackwell had shared.
Background to the case
Mrs Blackwell bought the house, Green Avon in Twyning Green, Gloucestershire, decades ago with Mrs Lewis' father.
After being widowed in the 1990s, Mrs Blackwell formed a relationship with Mr Warner, a wealthy local businessman, and he moved in. They never married but lived together in Mrs Blackwell's house until she died in 2014.
Two months after Mrs Blackwell's death, her daughter, Mrs Lewis, served Mr Warner with a notice to move out and hand over the keys. He refused and so began the first round of what became a protracted legal battle:
- In 2015, Mr Warner won his case in the county court with the judge agreeing that the need to keep a familiar 'roof over his head' meant he qualified as Mrs Blackwell's dependent and was therefore able to make a claim on her estate for maintenance. He was granted first option to buy the house from Mrs Blackwell's estate for £385,000;
- In 2016, Mrs Lewis challenged this decision in the High Court on three grounds, all to do with maintenance, but Mr Warner won again;
- In December 2017, Mrs Lewis took her case to the Court of Appeal arguing that though Mr Warner needed somewhere to live he was wealthy enough to buy his own house and that by staying in her mother's home, he was also keeping possession of her mother's belongings, which she wanted. The Court upheld the previous ruling on the grounds that Mrs Blackwell's Will did not make reasonable provision for Mr Warner's maintenance after her death and that such provision was required to preserve the status quo for 'a very old and infirm person who had been kept in a suitable house by the deceased for the nearly 20 years of their relationship'.
Although this elderly unmarried couple had straight forward Wills and plans in place on their death, the decision was over whether Mr Warner was allowed maintenance following Mrs Blackwell's death allowing him to stay in their home until he died. Mrs Blackwell's Will, leaving everything to her daughter, was not disputed but Mr Warner's welfare had to be taken into consideration.
The case confirms that financial maintenance is not the only type of maintenance that the Court will consider when looking at whether or not to make an order under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
Importance of clarity in Wills
It is important that cohabiting couples make it crystal clear in their Will whether they want to give their home to their cohabitee, give them the right to live on in the house until they themselves die or the right to buy the house from the estate. Addressing these issues is key.