Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Family courts' power to adjust inheritance rights

With thanks to co View Legal director Tara Lucke, this week’s post looks at the widely publicised High Court judgment of Stanford v Stanford (2012) HCA 52 from the end of 2012 and the Family Courts’ powers to potentially displace the distribution of assets under an estate plan. A link to the full copy of the decision is as follows: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/HCA/2012/52.html

As many will be aware the brief facts were that Mr and Mrs Stanford had no children together, although both had children from previous relationships. The Stanford’s had both crafted their estate plans to provide for their respective children, without making provision for each other, other than a life tenancy in the family home. The house was owned solely in the name of Mr Stanford (he had bought it before the marriage), although it had been lived in by the couple for over 40 years.

Critically, Mrs Stanford appointed her children, not Mr Stanford, under her guardian and attorney documents.

Due to ill health and mental incapacity, Mrs Stanford was moved into residential care. Despite no suggestion that the couple were anything other than happily married, on her mother’s incapacity Mrs Stanford's daughter initiated proceedings in the Family Court (as Mrs Stanford's legal guardian) seeking orders for equal division of the marital property (the main asset was the family home) between Mr and Mrs Stanford.

The initial Judge ordered that Mr Stanford pay a fixed sum of approximately half the value of the marital property to Mrs Stanford, which payment would have effectively passed directly to her guardians. To fund the payment the family home would have needed to be sold, forcing Mr Stanford to leave the house.

Mr Stanford appealed the decision, however Mrs Stanford passed away before judgment was delivered by the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal ultimately decided that Mrs Stanford's legal personal representatives should receive the fixed sum upon the death of Mr Stanford. This decision effectively altered the distribution of Mr Stanford's estate (which Mrs Stanford had agreed with while she had capacity) under his will as the house (following his wife’s death) would have otherwise passed to his children.

The decision of the Court of Appeal was ultimately set aside on appeal to the High Court, on the basis that the order was not just and equitable. However, importantly, the High Court confirmed that the death of a party to a marriage ‘does not transform the nature of the claim (for example, into a claim by the beneficiaries of the wife’s estate)’.

In other words, the right of a guardian or attorney to commence property settlement proceedings was effectively confirmed, even where (as here) they would have no entitlement to challenge the estate of their step father.

The decision highlights the risks that in some cases, particularly in relation to blended families, estate distributions may be fundamentally altered by way of ‘pre-emptive’ proceedings through the family law court.

Until next week.