Court of Appeal rules in favour of charities in legacy dispute

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A number of animal charities have successfully appealed a High Court decision (King v Dubrey) that an aunt had transferred her house to her nephew by a ‘donatio mortis causa’.  Donatio mortis causa is a doctrine which allows ‘death bed gifts’ to be made in certain circumstances in contemplation of imminent death without the formalities of writing a will.

The nephew’s claim was based on a conversation with his aunt made four months before her death.  The Court of Appeal ruled that there was no evidence that the deceased was suffering from any specific illness, and there was no reason why she should not have gone to her solicitors following the crucial conversation with her nephew and made a new will leaving the property to him whilst she was still alive.

The Court of Appeal emphasised that the doctrine by-passed the statutory safeguards in place in relation to the distribution of property on death, and that it must only be allowed to operate within strict limits.

The decision is a good one for charities, for whom legacies represent some £2 billion annually.  It has made clear that claims brought under the ‘donatio mortis causa’ doctrine will be carefully scrutinised, and approached by the courts with caution.

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