Friday, 18 February 2011

Multiple Wives Inherit Man's Estate

A recent case highlighted that English law must recognise legal relationships created in other countries even when they are repugnant to our own customs, as well as the importance of making a Will. The case of Official Solicitor to the Senior Courts v Yemoh concerned a man from Ghana who had six wives legally recognised under Ghanaian law who died leaving several properties including property in England, thus six of the Defendants in the case were widows of the deceased. If the marriages had taken place in England of course, he would have been guilty of bigamy and only the first marriage would be valid if there was no divorce. The man left no Will (we lawyers would say 'he died intestate').

The case concerned the definition of 'surviving spouse'. Under section 46 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925, a 'surviving spouse' inherits a certain amount of their husband's assets, depending on the existence of the other relatives (i.e. children, parents etc – the rules are complex). However, in this case, the court held that there were six 'surviving spouses', so all who made claim to do so were entitled to inherit.

It no doubt made a considerable difference in this case, practically if not legally, that the deceased appears to have been a very wealthy man and so there was plenty to go around. It would be interesting to see how the court would deal with the situation of a man of relatively modest means who made a Will here, had assets here and had six wives to consider. It is also worth pointing out that the intestacy rules do not prevent a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 under which a spouse (amongst others) can make claims for 'reasonable financial provision', even though this Act is more familiarly used to challenge 'unfair Wills'. I think cases of this kind have the potential to cause a judicial headache for our senior judges.

Anthony Wooding
Head of Litigation Department, Kerseys