It is not uncommon for delays to occur during the administration of an estate, for a variety of reasons.
Dealing with a complex estate can take time and delay may be unavoidable and justifiable. However in the absence of good reason, where should the fault lie where matters are not progressed as a quickly as a beneficiary may wish?
The recent case of Gaskin v Chorus Law Ltd and another  EWHC 616 (Ch) considered this issue together with:
- the cost implications of delay to the administration of an estate without a valid reason;
- the effect of the late discovery of a valid Will on the costs of ongoing proceedings;
- the costs consequences to an estate if litigation is caused by the Deceased having left their papers in a poor state.
The Deceased (Eileen Gaskin) died in 2012 when, despite searches in appropriate places, a Will was not found. Mrs Gaskin was therefore believed to have died intestate and her estate was to pass to her three children (Trevor, Marquita and Scarlett) under the Intestacy Rules. Trevor and Marquita agreed to instruct a probate company (Chorus Law) to administer the estate. Scarlett lived abroad and did not actively participate in the events surrounding the case and was not a party to the proceedings.
The principal asset of Mrs Gaskin’s estate was her property; however some three years after her death, the property had not been sold, nor had any attempts been made to market it for sale.
As a result of this delay, in March 2016 Trevor issued proceedings to remove Chorus Law as administrator and to appoint him instead. He also claimed for occupational rent to be paid to the estate by his sister Marquita, who had been living at the property (although she repeatedly denied this, claiming she had simply been clearing the house in readiness for sale). Marquita defended the claim on the basis that the property was not lettable due to its poor condition. She also claimed to have contributed to the purchase price of the property, and for financial and accommodation provision as a dependant of her mother.
Late discovery of a Will
Three months later, in June 2016, the matter was complicated by the discovery of Mrs Gaskin’s Will made in 1974 (found by Marquita’s solicitors in a bundle of documents). The Will appointed Marquita as sole executor and left Marquita almost the whole of her mother’s estate. At this point, the proceedings were stayed to allow Trevor to investigate the validity of the Will; however he failed to amend his claim to challenge or seek a pronouncement of any other Will within the time limit imposed by the Court. Accordingly, the only remaining live issue was who should be responsible for the costs.
When addressing the issue of costs, the Court found that Trevor had been justified in bringing his claim against Chorus Law, who were unable to show a valid reason for the lengthy delay in administering the estate. Marquita was also found to have contributed to this situation by persuading Chorus Law to delay a sale of the property and misleading them about living there. So for the period before the Will was found, Chorus Law and Marquita were each ordered to pay half of Trevor’s costs, reflecting their joint responsibility for the delay.
As to the late discovery of the Will, the Court considered it had been the responsibility of Mrs Gaskin’s children to carry out a search. However the Court found that their failure to find the Will had been due to the poor state in which Mrs Gaskin had left her papers; and therefore the estate should be responsible for much of the costs of the proceedings, as, if the Will had been found earlier, the proceedings would not have been brought.
So for the period after the Will was found until they were removed as administrator on 11 May 2017, Chorus Law were ordered to pay half of each of Trevor’s and Marquita’s costs, with the other half payable by the estate. The estate was also ordered to pay the entirety of Trevor’s and Marquita’s costs from 11 May 2017 until the expiry of the time allowed for Trevor to challenge the Will on 9 June 2017, on the basis that the uncertainty about the Will’s validity was caused by the circumstances of its discovery.
The case is important in highlighting the potential cost penalties of the failure to progress the administration of an estate by administrators; as well as the costs consequences to an estate if proceedings are brought because of the poor state in which the Deceased left their affairs. It also demonstrates the flexibility and scrutiny applied by the Court to determine where the costs liability should fall in respect of each stage of a case.
This article was written by Carol Carder and Kerry Morgan-Gould. The team can be contacted on 0800 0931 336 or by email on firstname.lastname@example.org should you wish to discuss how we might be able to help.