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Animal Charities Triumph in 'Death Bed' Gift Dispute

In a unique case, which raised the perplexing issue of ‘death bed’ gifts in stark form, the Court of Appeal has handed animal charities victory over a man whose aunt gave him the deeds to her £350,000 home five months before she died.

The aunt, an ex-police officer and animal lover, had written a will in which she left all but £19,000 in legacies to family and friends to animal charities. However, her nephew claimed that she had put the deeds into his hand when she knew that she was dying and had told him, “This will be yours when I go.”

Invoking the Roman law principle of ‘donatio mortis causa’, a judge accepted that the aunt, who was aged 81 at the time, had given away her home – which made up the vast bulk of her estate – in the belief that her death was imminent. That meant that the property fell outside her estate and the charities inherited nothing.

In allowing the charities’ appeal, however, the Court of Appeal noted that, as an intelligent woman, the obvious thing for her to have done if she had wanted her nephew to have her home was to see a solicitor and make a new will. There was not the slightest reason why she would not have taken that course.

The words that she was said to have spoken when handing over the deeds did not amount to an irrevocable gift and she had not acted in contemplation of her impending death. The Court nevertheless ruled that the nephew was entitled to £75,000 from his aunt’s estate as her dependant and in recognition of the care that he had given her during her final years.