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The Ties that Bind

When selecting his or her heirs, a will-maker needs to understand the class of persons who might expect to inherit and who deserve to inherit their estate. In the case law, this is referred to as the “natural objects of the will-maker’s bounty”. This expression will obviously mean different things to different people. The ties that bind some families together are tighter than others.

A fairly recent British case, Vegetarian Society v. Scott,[1] involved a will-maker who, while he saw his immediate family on a regular basis, did not like them very much. That was due to differences in lifestyle, social groups, interests and values. It was not disputed that the testator was eccentric.[2] For much of his life he lived with his mother but he entered and exited the house through the main floor bathroom window. He preferred to bathe outdoors, washing himself in streams, or rivers, or with a cold water shower he had rigged up outside. He cooked indoors on a camp stove. He was a millionaire with a good business sense, but did not own a fridge. He was diagnosed posthumously with schizophrenia.

The testator left the residue of his estate to a vegetarian organization called the Vegetarian Society and another charity. He left almost nothing to his family. The family challenged the will. The main question for the court was whether the symptoms of schizophrenia indicated testamentary incapacity, particularly in light of the fact that the testator was not a vegan or a vegetarian and had no connection to either of the charities to which he left his estate. The court found that the symptoms did not indicate testamentary incapacity, holding:[3]

The sanity or otherwise of the bequest turns not on Mr. McKeen’s partiality for food such as sausages, a full English Breakfast or a traditional roast turkey at Christmas; nor does it turn on the fact that he was schizophrenic with severe thought disorder. It really turns on the rationality or otherwise of his instructions for his wills set in the context of his family relations and other relations at various times.

The court concluded:[4]

The plain fact in this case is that when making his 2006 will Mr. McKeen did not feel the bond of natural love and affection with his blood family that usually exists. Accordingly, he consciously decided to leave his estate elsewhere. That is a decision which the law respects and upholds.

In short, the judge found that the ties that bound this particular testator to his family were weak and that he was entitled to leave his estate to an unconnected charity instead.

While the trial judge’s conclusion is sound based on the factual findings made, it is interesting to consider whether the decision would have been different if the diagnosis of schizophrenia been related to a delusion that had caused the contents of the will instead of in the context of his relationships. This, however, is a question for another day.

[1] Vegetarian Society v. Scott, [2013] EWHC 4097 (Ch), [2014] W.T.L.R. 525 (Eng. H.C.J (Ch)) [Vegetarian Society].

[2] Vegetarian Society at paras 8, 9, 10, 13, and 17.

[3] Vegetarian Society at para 64.

[4] Vegetarian Society at para 104.

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