A High Court Decision in May of this year highlights the importance of understanding time limits in Relationship Property Claims.  The increasingly common facts of the case were that the Appellant entered into a de facto relationship and he and his partner jointly purchased a property which became their family home.   The Appellant’s partner later made a Will appointing the Appellant as one of her executors, along with her solicitor, and appointing him the sole beneficiary.

On her death her interest in the home was extinguished and accrued to the Appellant by survivorship.   The only other, modest, assets of the estate were then distributed to the Appellant.

Given that the estate didn’t exceed $15,000.00 and was therefore a “small estate” for the purposes of the Administration Act the executors did not apply for Probate.

Over a year later the deceased’s daughter filed an Application for Probate seeking the appointment of the Public Trust as executor of the estate.   This was done with a view to the Public Trust making an application under the Property (Relationships) Act on behalf of the deceased which would then allow the deceased’s daughter to make a claim against her mother’s estate under the Family Protection Act 1955.

There were some significant delays in obtaining a Grant of Probate and the Public Trust was appointed as the administrator of the estate in April 2013 some seven years later.

The Family Court considered that the deceased’s former interest in the family home formed part of her estate and that accordingly the estate was not a “small estate”.   The Family Court Judge went on to hold that because administration of the estate was not granted until April 2013 the Judge considered that the proceedings were not out of time.

However on the deceased’s partners appeal to the High Court the High Court reiterated that because the home was jointly owned the deceased’s interest in it was extinguished upon her death and, accordingly, her estate had no interest in the home and it did not form part of the estate.   As a result the estate was clearly a “small estate” and, accordingly, any proceedings challenging the deceased’s Will needed to have been made within twelve months of the date of death or the Grant of Probate.

In the Family Court the Judge also held that even if the proceeding was technically out of time leave could still be granted to bring the Application because no final distribution of the estate had been made.   That was based on the assumption that the deceased’s interest in the family home formed part of the estate and therefore the estate had not been finally distributed.

The High Court made it clear that, given that the deceased’s former interest in the home didn’t form part of the estate, the estate simply comprised those other assets which were distributed according to the deceased’s Will in 2006 and, accordingly, the estate had been finally distributed.

The Decision is of interest to Family Court Practitioners in terms of the time limits for making claims and also confirms the view long held by practitioners that an interest in a property held jointly with another is extinguished upon death such that its value cannot be taken into account in assessing the nature, and extent, of the estate.

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