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The Court's approach to the construction of Bernard Matthew's Will

In Scarfe and another v Matthews and others [2012] All ER (D) 25 the High Court recently decided a case relating to the estate of the self-styled "Turkey King", Bernard Matthews, who died in 2010. The case is an interesting example of the Court's ability to construe the terms of wills and demonstrates the importance of careful consideration in estate planning of how succession laws may operate in different jurisdictions.

Mr Matthew's estate in the UK was valued at around £40 million, but there was also property abroad, including his villa in France valued at around 15m euros. He was survived by his estranged wife, Joyce, and their three adopted children and his biological son, George, and his partner of 20 years, Odile.

By his English Will, Mr Matthews left the majority of his estate to George. By his two French Wills, Mr Matthews purported to leave the French villa and his other assets in France to Odile absolutely. Mr Matthews was aware when he made his French Wills that, pursuant to the so-called "forced heirship" rules in France, his children would be automatically entitled to a 75% share of his estate in France, regardless of the provisions of his Wills. Nevertheless, he left a letter of wishes expressing his wish that Odile be allowed to continue to occupy and enjoy the French villa.

George respected his wishes. The three adopted children did not. The issue before the English Court was whether a further provision of Mr Matthew's English Will operated to discharge the adopted children's liability to tax on the French property, which they incurred as a result of their decision to claim their entitlement to that property (and, if it did, whether Odile should be compensated, pursuant to the doctrine of election).

Mr N Strauss Q.C. held that, on a proper construction of the English Will, Mr Matthew's clear intention was to ensure that Odile inherited the French villa, free of tax. Mr Matthews would not have wanted the same to apply, however, in respect of his adopted children, if they exercised their inheritance rights against his wishes. The adopted children were not, therefore, entitled to have the tax paid from the English estate (although the result of that finding was also that Odile could not be compensated pursuant to the doctrine of election).

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