People often talk about putting their affairs in order but then sit on their hands until it is too late. The serious consequences of delay in seeking legal advice were underlined by a case in which a woman waited until she was resident in a hospice, terminally ill with cancer, before instructing a solicitor to prepare her will.
The woman signed her will 10 days before her death. Her main asset was a house she jointly owned with her mother, who survived her by about four years. An issue of great significance, however, later arose as to whether they owned the property as joint tenants or as tenants in common.
If they held the property as joint tenants, the principle of survivorship applied and, on the woman's death, her half share passed automatically to her mother. In that event, the property formed part of the mother's estate when she died and the entirety of the proceeds of its sale – more than £400,000 – fell to be distributed in accordance with her will. If, on the other hand, they held the property as tenants in common, the woman's share of the property fell into her own estate.
On the same day that the woman made her will, she signed a notice which purported to sever her and her mother's joint tenancy, thereby converting it into a tenancy in common. A letter containing the notice was sent to her mother by registered post. A few days after the woman died, however, the letter was returned undelivered.
Against the background of those unfortunate events, the executor of the mother's estate launched proceedings. Half the proceeds of the property's sale were held in a solicitors' account pending a judicial resolution of the matter.
The High Court noted that the non-delivery of the letter meant that the mother had not been served with the notice. That deficit had not been cured by a letter sent to the mother by the Land Registry four days before her daughter died. The joint tenancy had therefore not been validly severed and the Court ruled that the entirety of the proceeds of sale formed part of the mother's estate.