High court resolves ambiguous charity bequests in woman’s will

The England and Wales High Court (EWHC) recently ruled on a case involving the will of Marjorie Thompson, who left the residue of her estate equally to fifteen charities, several of which were incorrectly or ambiguously named.

Thompson, who passed away on April 9th, 2020, had her will drafted by a now-retired solicitor. The firm that took over had limited records, with only a will from 2011 listing the same charities, providing little insight into the intended beneficiaries.

Seven of the named charities were unclear, and attempts to identify them through Thompson’s bank accounts were unsuccessful. The EWHC was tasked with determining the validity of the gifts and whether any should lapse, pass by intestacy, or be applied cy-près.

Thompson’s estate, valued at GBP 1.48 million, meant each charity would receive approximately GBP 105,000, minus legal costs. A notable complication was clause 13 of the will, which barred any charity from benefiting if it had changed its name or merged before the estate was distributed.

The court established several principles based on precedent. Firstly, it was necessary to interpret the will’s wording to identify the donee. If a named charity did not exist or was unclear, the court would consider if the gift should be applied cy-près. Other principles addressed the purposes of the charitable gift and the status of the charity if it no longer existed or had no clear successor.

The EWHC then addressed each ambiguous charity:

  • The Animal Defence Society: Ceased to exist in 1971, succeeded by the Animal Defence Trust.
  • The Animal Health Trust: In liquidation, bequest could be paid to creditors.
  • The Society for Promotion of Nature Reserves: Renamed The Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts.
  • The Donkey Sanctuary: Initially listed in Berkshire, now based in Devon.
  • The Home Rest for Horses: Did not exist, identified as Horseworld Trust.
  • The Heavy Horses Preservation Society: Did not exist, identified as the Shire Horse Society.
  • The Society for the Preservation of English Countryside: Identified as the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

In all cases, the court found appropriate beneficiaries, ensuring none of the gifts failed, despite the unusual wording of clause 13. The court interpreted this clause to apply only to changes occurring after the will’s execution (Dryden v Young, 2024 EWHC 1095 Ch).

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