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Friday, December 29, 2017

UK's National Trust to inherit millions from businessman who has dementia and cannot change his will

Have you ever thought about what might happen if you don't keep your will up to date?

In 1990, Michael Collins, described as a millionaire property tycoon, made a will leaving his estate to the National Trust, a British charitable organization that acquires and preserves historic and natural properties. He and his wife, Christine Collins, did not have children and they intended to leave their entire estate to the charity when they both pass on.

Christine Collins died in 2014. Michael Collins is now 78 years old, has dementia, and is no longer capable of handling financial or legal affairs. This means he cannot make a new will. In accordance with Mr. Collins' current will, when he dies the National Trust will inherit about 5.5 million UK pounds (about $9,300,000 Canadian).

So what's the problem? Mr. Collins' friends and family say that he now hates the National Trust. He and Mrs. Collins apparently had a dispute with the National Trust back in 2005 when they clashed over plans for a bird sanctuary. After that, Mrs. Collins apparently switched her interest from the National Trust to the local Opera House and the local theatre. However, they never did change their wills.

In 2007, Christine Collins tried to get the court to agree to a new will on behalf of her husband, who by then had dementia and couldn't change it himself. The court would not agree. Mrs. Collins died in 2014 and her assets all went to her husband.

The report on this case in The Telegraph (click here to read it) quotes several of the Collins' friends expressing outrage that the funds are eventually going to go to the National Trust when it's not what the Collinses want.  But does nobody see the danger of allowing the court to dismiss a completely valid will based on the fact that "everybody knows" it's not what the testator wants? What a slippery slope that would be, if the court started listening to what everyone else thinks about someone's will. No will on earth would ever make it through probate.

As mentioned, in 2007 Mrs. Collins tried to get the court to make a statutory will for her husband. This is allowed in only one or two jurisdictions in Canada. The idea of it is to allow a legal representative to approach the court and create a will for a person with a mental disability. My understanding of this type of law is to ensure that the family of a disabled person are protected and that no assets are left undistributed. I have never heard of it being used to displace a will made by a person when he or she was mentally fully capable because other people didn't think it was applicable any more. I'm not surprised in the least that this did not work.

If it really is the case that Mr. Collins hates the National Trust - and there is really no evidence of that - then he should have changed his will sometime after he had a falling-out with them. It's up to each of us to keep our documents up to date; it's not up to the courts to listen to our friends about what they think we want.

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