My neighbour intended to make a Will but then….

This Coronavirus is causing quite a few headaches – even for those who aren’t infected.

Young people don’t have Will-making high on their list of priorities. They’ll obviously get round
to it later on. But then the Coronavirus strikes and within a couple of weeks on a ventilator
they’ve passed away. And of the >45,000 (at the time of writing) unfortunate souls who have
succumbed to this disease it’s highly likely that very many will have died before they had make
a Will. They died intestate.

A statutory “family tree” takes care of the distribution of the intestate’s estate, with precise
variations depending on whether there was a surviving spouse and/or children. It’s a reasonable
safety net, but most people prefer to make their own decisions, and occasionally include bequests
or legacies to other family and friends, and sometimes to preferred charities.

But there’s an unexpected further complication. Without a Will there are no named executors –
so who is going to do the work? The family tree covers that as well. But sometimes the required
relations either cannot be found or do not even exist.

Our office is dealing with one such case. A lady in her 60s was believe to have died in her “right-to-
buy” former council home. A neighbour alerted our office, but the deceased was not an
established client of our office. We had no Will. Enquiries with other solicitors said the same.
She was believed to be intestate. Her body was removed but on departure the front door was
slammed shut – and no one had any keys. More enquiries revealed that she had been married but
divorced many, many years ago. She had never had any children. Her parents had already died
and she had no brothers or sisters. We were getting near the outer fringes of the “family tree”.
Enquiries of the ex-husband suggested there may be distant remote cousins living in France, but
no one knew where.

Our office had to make some decisions. We contacted a locksmith who gained entry and found
the keys. Two of our staff members attended at her home and photographed the contents for our
own protection. Then we instructed a highly professional firm to clear the house. That firm is
expert at keeping family photos safe, and identifying important documents which might be clues
as to the existence of assets, such as policies, accounts, bonds etc. While that was going on our
office contacted one of the reputable genealogist firms. They asked if the deceased had anything
like a Christmas Card list, or address book. Yes, the clearance firm had kept these safe. In due
course the genealogists contacted us to say the British Consul in Germany (nb, not France)
wanted a copy of the death certificate.

And all this went on while our “virtual” office was in lock-down because of Covid 19. If the lady
had left a Will it would probably have included an executor, and beneficiaries. This particular
case is still on-going, so it remains a possibility that the only beneficiaries are not sufficiently
closely related to the deceased to be entitled. In that case, in theory, the estate should go to Her
Majesty as “Bona Vacantia”, but our office has had experience of just a case, in which the
Treasury Solicitor agreed, as a concession, that if we knew of someone who the deceased might
have wanted to benefit we could distribute the (admittedly modest) estate to them.

Far better – contact our office as we have the facilities to deal with even urgent (“while you wait”)
Wills and can sign on behalf of a testator who cannot do so himself. The law has just changed
to allow witnessing over Skype, Facetime or other electronic links so we do not have to worry
about the self-isolation rules.

For more advice about Bona Vacantia, intestacy, and making urgent Wills please contact John
Pulham or Sharon Brett at:-
Messrs Pulham & Co
Egmere House,
Market Place,
Saxmundham,
IP17 1AG
Telephone (01728) 602084 or e-mail jsp@pulham.co.uk or smb@pulham.co.uk