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A Perfect Storm

Although it can be risky, administering an estate is usually relatively straightforward to the experienced practitioner. Occasionally, though, some elements of a particular estate will test the mettle of the best. Nicholas Beetham looks at a recent “perfect storm” estate which, although demanding, presented no more than a welcome challenge to Kings Court, who administered it smoothly and without fuss.

“Nigel, I’ve made an appointment for you to visit the family of Mr James Evans, who died on 12th July 2011. Two of his children are Executors on their father’s will but they’re not sure whether he actually signed it and some other family members will also be there. The children have told me that there are definitely some assets overseas and there’s talk of some of the family also being overseas – no-one seems to know where at the moment. The family would like you to meet with them at their late father’s home next Wednesday at 10:00am.”

This is exactly how our involvement in almost all the estates we administer begins. The Executors, or one of the family of the deceased, will call our Probate Advice Line on Freephone 0300 303 9000 for free-of-charge help. If the deceased held any assets in his or her own name, it’s very likely that the Executors will need a Grant of Probate so that title to the assets can be transferred to the beneficiaries. Our Probate Support Team will guide the Executors through their options and, if the family would find it helpful, will organise a no-obligation meeting between the family and one of our Probate Consultants, like Nigel, at a time to suit the family. Our Consultant will talk with the family in detail about the estate: is the Deceased’s last Will valid? Is it complete? What sort of assets did the deceased own and what were they worth at the date of death? Where were they? What did he owe?

Partial intestacy

The facts of the estate that Nigel took instructions in looked complex from the outset: the Will had been signed and was, in fact, valid – as far as it went. However, it didn’t deal with James’s holiday home in Spain and, as there was no evidence of a Will having been drafted in Spain, it would therefore have to be dealt with as if he had died intestate. This was to prove interesting because we had to apply Spanish law in order to carry out this part of the administration.

Unknown assets

The family told Nigel everything they knew about the deceased’s substantial assets and relatively modest liabilities. As it turned out that there were more assets that the family – and possibly James himself – hadn’t realised he’d owned. Amongst plenty of other holdings, James had owned a good number of shares in Cadbury Schweppes plc, in his own name (rather than in a stockbroker’s nominee account). Apparently neither he, nor the family, had realised that Cadbury Schweppes plc had demerged in May 2008 to become two separate entities: Cadbury plc which traded on the London Stock Exchange (and was acquired by Kraft Foods in February 2010 – which trades on the New York Stock Exchange) and Dr Pepper Snapple Inc., which also trades on the New York Stock Exchange. So, although James thought he owned shares in Cadbury Schweppes plc, he actually owned shares in Kraft Foods Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Inc. 

Missing beneficiaries

James had left the residue of his estate divided equally between his five children, two of whom were his Executors. However, James and his son Paul had become estranged around the time of Paul’s marriage and he had gone to live in Canada with his wife, whom, it turned out neither James nor the rest of the family had ever liked much. None of the family was sure whereabouts in Canada he and his wife had gone, though they thought they’d initially been based in Ontario. Another of his sons, Simon, had sadly died a year or so before James, leaving a 23 year-old son, and a 19 year old daughter of his own.

What the..? Who the...? Where the..?

So, to summarise what Nigel uncovered in the meeting:

  • James’s Will, although valid, didn’t deal with his second home in Spain. We would have to deal with it according to Spanish intestacy law as it related to land and buildings.
  • James owned other foreign assets too: the Kraft Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Inc. shares in the US. We would have to value, repatriate and sell these US shares.
  • The residue of James’s estate would be divided between his four surviving children.
  • Because of the way the Will was drafted, Simon’s children would not inherit their late father’s share of James’s estate and the family was keen that they should not lose out. We would have to provide a deed of family arrangement accordingly.
  • We would need to locate Paul in Canada – if he was still there.
  • Although the facts of James’s estate, and the challenges it presented us, seemed a bit like an exam question to Nigel and the rest of us back at Kings Court HQ, we knew we’d be able to call on our different in-house resources to administer the estate without fuss and distribute to the beneficiaries as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

The outcome

Dealing with US shares can be tricky and time-consuming for the uninitiated. However, we have a great deal of experience of repatriating shares traded on almost every overseas stock exchange and, in this case, we liaised with the American transfer agents and the Internal Revenue Service (their equivalent of our HMRC) to ensure a timely and smooth sale. 

Using our own missing beneficiary tracing service, it took us a fortnight to find Paul – he was still in Canada but he and his wife had moved to British Columbia.

We liaised with our Spanish agent and arranged for the sale of the Spanish property and the distribution of the proceeds according to Spanish intestacy law.

We helped the family by preparing a deed of family arrangement so that Simon’s children weren’t left out of sharing in their grandfather’s estate.

It’s not every day that a single estate will present as many challenges as James Evans’s did. However, because we administer so many estates each year, it’s very unusual indeed for us to come across a problem we haven’t dealt with successfully before.