Harry Potter Publisher leaves an unexpected Will that may be challenged – perhaps inspired by the Chamber of Secrets!

4th August 2021 Will Disputes

Recent reports in America have highlighted the increasingly common situation where people leave their entire estate to non-family members upon their death, much to the upset of their family. Richard Robinson Junior (“the Deceased”) was the owner of Scholastic publishing company, best known for publishing ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog,’ to name a few. He passed away suddenly in June 2021 and has left, amongst other things, his entire company, worth $1.2 billion, to his lover (who also held a significant role in the company) to the exclusion of his ex-wife and sons.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Deceased’s two sons and his ex-wife are not happy that the entire estate has been left to his former lover, with whom they had never spoken until after the Deceased’s death. The Deceased’s sons are currently considering their legal options and, while any action would take place outside of our jurisdiction, the facts are certainly similar to many scenarios that we come across under the law of England and Wales.

Under English law, the principle of testamentary freedom is key when a person is making a will and considering who to leave their estate to upon their death. In theory and subject to certain exceptions, you can therefore leave your estate to whoever you wish, including non-family members, charities, etc. However, as you would expect, this can leave many disinherited family members disgruntled and some may be in a position to challenge a will.

Under English law, certain categories of people can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the Act”) if it is considered that a will has not made reasonable financial provision for them. Children of the deceased can make a claim under the act, such as Mr Robinson Junior’s sons, as well as for example spouses and former spouses (who have not formed a subsequent marriage.) The court considers several factors when exercising its discretion to consider such claims and the focus is often whether any applicant is in need of financial provision for their maintenance.

For example, in a case with facts like that of Richard Robinson Junior and with an estate value of the likely level here, one of the factors that the court would look at if the dispute were in England or Wales is whether the Deceased had maintained his children financially during their lifetime and also their individual financial circumstances. Furthermore, they will also consider the large size of the estate and the fact that the Deceased had become closer to his children and ex-wife again prior to his death and after his Will was executed. These factors would be considered on a case by case basis to determine whether any award should be made in favour of those excluded from a Will.

A scenario like this highlights the importance of individuals discussing their wishes with family members before they die so that they are aware of the provisions and the reasons why such decisions have been taken. This would prevent a secret will being discovered after death which may be surprising and upsetting to family members and may result in expensive and uncertain litigation.

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Alison Parry is a Partner located in Manchester in our Will and Trust Disputes department

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