Legal costs - Mussell v Patience [2018] EWHC 430 (Ch)

The High Court has held that executors who obtain legal advice during the course of the administration of an estate are not required to show in the estate accounts what the fees are for, nor whether they have been reasonably incurred or are reasonable in amount.

When Louise Patience died in 1997, she left her property to her four adult children. Her daughter Anita and her solicitor, David Williams were the two named executors. Unfortunately, a dispute arose between Anita and David and two of Louise’s other children, Christopher and Veronica Patience (who were also two of the four beneficiaries under the will), regarding the estate accounts. Anita and David sought a declaration that the “final estate accounts” were correct and a direction that the estate be administered accordingly. The court however decided that this was really a claim by the executors for the taking of an account and the matter proceeded on that basis.

Christopher and Veronica challenged 26 payments for legal services. They said that the estate accounts and associated documents did not contain enough detail to establish whether the lawyer’s charges were reasonable as they only contained basic information such as address, a description of “professional charges” and amount details. They argued they were entitled to the detail and that the onus was on the executors to provide this.

The judge found that an executor has only to show that the sum in question had been spent, and that it was spent in the fair execution of the estate administration. Accordingly, when providing the details of fees incurred, the executor need not exceed the basic information contained in the solicitors' invoice; that is, that the charges are professional charges to the executor, as executor, in relation to the administration of a particular estate. The judge also confirmed that it was not necessary to disclose the number of hours worked, the hourly rate used or to give a detailed breakdown of work done. There is also no obligation to prove that solicitor charges are reasonably incurred or were reasonable in amount. The judge pointed out that it was still open to the beneficiaries to provide evidence to the contrary.

Due execution - the Tracey Leaning Case

In 2007, Tracey Leaning, an animal lover, drafted a will and left £340,000 worth of assets to four  charities including the Dog’s Trust, World Animal Protection, Friends of the Animals and Heart Research UK. After meeting her partner in 2014, Tracey changed her will to the benefit of her partner and removed the charities as beneficiaries. After Tracey died in 2015, the Dog’s Trust challenged the validity of the will on a number of grounds relating to its execution and form, including that the will was handwritten and particular pages of the will were separated and not stapled together. The case, which has been reported in the press, is still ongoing.

It is worth reminding prospective beneficiaries of some of the seemingly obvious, but very important lessons that arise from this case. A number of issues could have been avoided and uncertainty removed had a solicitor drafted Tracey’s 2014 will. A solicitor could have provided assurance to those involved, by confirming Tracey’s instructions as to her intentions and given her professional guidance in relation to the required form of the will to avoid uncertainty (such as ensuring that the will was signed on the same page or at the end of the document, and presented the pages in order and stapled together). 

In a case like this it is important that the relevant charity or charities not only consider the likely prospects of successfully challenging the validity of the will but ensure that other factors, such as what the likely costs will be, are considered too. Consideration should also be given to whether there are any options for settling the dispute, to avoid Court proceedings altogether and to minimise costs. We will continue to monitor the progress of the case.

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Jane Andrews

Senior Paralegal

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Posted on 14/05/2018 in Legal Updates

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