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Bernard Matthews' Failed End-of-Life Wishes Teach Us a Valuable Lesson

As Christmas approaches and we begin to think of turkey and other delights, I am reminded of the case of Bernard Matthews, the British poultry producer, whose end-of-life wishes were defeated by French law. This high-profile case highlights the importance of taking care of every detail regarding your estate.

Having a Will in place is crucial for ensuring your end-of-life wishes are met and for ensuring your assets go to the right people. However, preparing a Will is rarely as easy as some proclaim, especially if you have a complex estate with properties in more than one jurisdiction not to mention complex family relations. In such cases you will almost certainly need professional advice, as Inheritance laws and Tax laws vary in different nations, a fact that is compounded by cultural differences and different expectations on what people can do with their estate.

The turkey farmer wanted his French mistress Odile Marteyn to inherit the £12 million villa near St Tropez they had lived in for many years, so he made three Wills relating to his £50 million estate; one under English law and two under French law. One of the two French Wills provided that the Mediterranean villa would go to his mistress and the other bequeathed his movable property in France to her. In the English Will he specified that Odile should inherit the villa tax-free.

However, Matthews' estate became the focus of a High Court battle because a substantial portion of his property was located in France, where different inheritance rules apply and assets are expected to go to the deceased's closest family.

Before his death, Matthews recognised that under French laws his adopted children would be automatically entitled to a portion of his French property, so he wrote a letter explaining his wishes to his children and wife (which, unfortunately, is not a legally binding document), asking them not to exercise this right. However, his three adopted children, who were left nothing in the three Wills, did the opposite, claiming a 56.25% share of the luxury French villa.

The court ruled that the adopted children could exercise their rights under French law regarding their share in the mansion, contrary to their father's wishes, but that they would have no right to inherit the villa tax-free.

Under English law, it is possible for family members to be excluded from inheriting any part of the deceased's estate in favour of third parties. However, discontented beneficiaries have more legal options in England and Wales than in France.

People who own assets in several jurisdictions must make separate Wills and make sure they don't contradict or revoke each other. Legal documents written in English but governed by foreign laws should also include a clear explanation of the parties' intentions as certain concepts that are quite clear in one jurisdiction and culture may not exist in others.