1975 Act claim by long-term cohabitee

 In Probate, Trusts

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Patel v VighPatel v Vigh [2013] EWHC 3403 (Ch)

Patel v Vigh appears to be the only judgment given by the High Court in 2013 following a trial of a 1975 Act claim. It revisits some important considerations which arise in 1975 Act claims brought by cohabitees and dependants.

The facts

The claimant, Mr Patel, and the deceased, Mrs Vigh, were an unmarried couple who had been together for some 24 years when Mrs Vigh died intestate in 2008. She had had two children from a previous relationship, who were both adults at the date of the proceedings and who under the intestacy rules stood to inherit Mrs Vigh’s entire estate, valued at c.£276,000 (plus an undivided share in joint bank accounts worth c.£25,000).

Mr Patel brought proceedings against the estate by which he contended that he was entitled to a beneficial interest in Mrs Vigh’s property by virtue of a constructive trust, and by which he sought reasonable financial provision from the estate pursuant to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the 1975 Act”) as a cohabitee and/or as a dependant of Mrs Vigh.

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David Halpern QC (sitting as a judge of the Chancery Division) described the case as “marked by an unusually high degree of mistrust between the parties” and found Mr Patel not to have been an honest witness. He described the deceased as having been hard-working but never a high earner. After considering the couple’s financial history in some detail, he concluded that Mr Patel’s uncorroborated evidence about his alleged financial contributions did not establish a constructive trust in his favour. On the contrary, he held that Mr Patel and Mrs Vigh had kept their finances separate.

As regards Mr Patel’s 1975 Act claim, the judge held that Mr Patel qualified as a cohabitee pursuant to section 1(1)(ba), relying in particular on the speech that Mrs Vigh’s daughter had given at her funeral by which she had thanked Mr Patel “for being with me when [Mrs Vigh] passed away and giving her 25 happy years”. The judge cited the passage from the judgment of Neuberger J (as he then was) in Re Watson [1999] 3 FCR 595 in which he had held that in determining whether two persons were living together as husband and wife “one should not ignore the multifarious nature of marital relationships”. On the facts, Mr Patel and Mrs Vigh had “remained in the same household for 25 years, whatever their ups and downs”. Moreover, the couple had been in a relationship “immediately before the date when the deceased died” (within the meaning of section 1(1A)) despite the fact that Mrs Vigh had spent the last 2 months of her life in hospital and had died there.

On the other hand, Mr Patel did not qualify as a dependant pursuant to section 1(1)(e). Although the judge was prepared to accept that “the provision of rent-free accommodation is capable of amounting to a contribution in money’s worth”, Mr Patel had produced no evidence of notional rent and in any event the suggestion that he had been provided with rent-free accommodation was inconsistent with his evidence that he had made financial contributions to the mortgage payments (which he had advanced in support of his constructive trust claim).

In relation to the question whether reasonable financial provision had been made for Mr Patel, the judge considered each of the factors listed in section 3(1) and dismissed Mr Patel’s claim, highlighting in particular that Mr Patel had provided “no credible evidence” regarding his financial needs and resources, as a result of which his 1975 Act claim “does not get off the ground”. Thus, the proceedings brought by Mr Patel failed in their entirety.

Interesting points

A number of points emerge from the decision which are likely to be of interest to practitioners.

  1. The case highlights the need for detailed and focussed evidence of financial needs and resources in 1975 Act claims. Neither side had the benefit of solicitors (both had instructed counsel on a public access basis) and the judge complained that Mr Patel’s disclosure was “lamentably inadequate and late” and that the case had come to trial “in a state of some disarray”, comprising a trial bundle of some 8 volumes and 5,000 pages, of which “only a tiny percentage” was referred to at trial. Where the claimant’s evidence as to financial needs and resources is incomplete and/or not credible, the claim is unlikely to “get off the ground” (as Mr Patel’s failed to do). On the other hand, where the defendants fail to adduce satisfactory evidence of their financial needs and resources, the court is likely to assume that they are financially independent and that there is accordingly no need to take their financial needs and resources into account (see e.g. Lilleyman v Lilleyman [2013] Ch 225 at [66] and Moore v Holdsworth [2010] EWHC 683 (Ch) at [25]).
  2. The decision expressly follows Re Watson [1999] 3 FCR 595 and confirms that in deciding whether a person was “living as a husband or wife of the deceased” (section 1(1A)) the court should adopt the position of a “reasonable person with normal perceptions” and should not “ignore the multifarious nature of martial relationships”.
  3. The case also goes further than Re Watson in holding that the fact that the deceased had spent the last 2 months of her life in hospital did not detract from the fact that she and Mr Patel had lived in the same household as husband and wife “during the whole period of two years ending immediately before the date when the deceased died” (as required by section 1(1A)). The period of 2 months was significantly longer than that in Re Watson, where the deceased had been hospitalised for the final 3 weeks of his life.
  4. The judge was prepared to accept that the provision of rent-free accommodation was capable of amounting to a contribution in money’s worth, and thus might enable the recipient of such accommodation to claim as a dependant pursuant to section 1(1)(e).
  5. The case illustrates the potential difficulties of claiming both on the basis of a constructive trust and as a dependant pursuant to section 1(1)(e). There is an obvious inconsistency between arguing that the claimant has made significant financial contributions to a property which give rise to a constructive trust and at the same time that the claimant was being wholly or partly maintained by the deceased and thus qualifies as a claimant pursuant to section 1(1)(e).
  6. Finally, the new “hot-tubbing” procedure (contained in paragraph 11 of CPR 35PD) was adopted in relation to the evidence of two handwriting experts who were called to give evidence as to the authenticity of Mrs Vigh’s alleged signature on a “Business Statement” document said to govern an off-licence business in which Mrs Vigh had had an interest. The judge scrutinised and compared the evidence of the two experts and concluded that one expert was “considerably less impressive” than the other. His analysis (in paragraphs 68 to 73 of the judgment) is worth reading when instructing an expert or assessing the strengths and weaknesses of an expert report.
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