The recent case of King v The Chiltern Dog Rescue  has raised the issue of “donatio mortis causa”, otherwise known as deathbed gifts. In particular, it has shown how widely this doctrine can be construed.
To establish that a valid deathbed gift has been made, the applicant must show that:
- The Donor contemplated their impending death;
- The Donor made a gift which would only take effect if and when the contemplated death occurred and which they could revoke at any time beforehand; and
- The Donor has to deliver the subject matter of the gift to the recipient, (for example Deeds to a property must be handed over).
In King v The Chiltern Dog Rescue, the Deceased had a Husband who had passed away some years before. The Deceased and her Husband did not have any children.
As the years went on, and after her Husband passed away, the Deceased became an animal lover and developed a keen interest in animal welfare. This resulted in her executing a Will in 1998, which left a number of legacies and the residuary of the Estate to several animal charities.
During 2007, the Deceased became very frail and Mr King, her nephew, agreed to move into her property to care for her, in return for free room and board.
In 2010, the Deceased purportedly signed two documents leaving her Estate to Mr King. However, neither of the documents were witnessed and so were not valid Wills under English law.
The Deceased then passed away on 10 April 2011 and Mr King brought a claim against her Estate on the basis that the Deceased had, during many conversations, stated that the property would be his upon her death. In addition, Mr King argued that the Deceased had given him the Deeds to her property before her death, suggesting this was a deathbed gift. In the alternative, Mr King also made a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 (“1975 Act”) on the basis that he was maintained by the Deceased during her lifetime.
At first instance, the High Court found in favour of Mr King, holding that a deathbed gift had been made in relation to the property. However, he also stated that, if this decision was found to be incorrect, then Mr King should succeed under the 1975 Act and be entitled to the sum of £75,000.
The decision was appealed by the animal charity beneficiaries of the 1998 Will and the decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal on the basis that a deathbed gift had not been made, as the Deceased was not contemplating her death when she provided Mr King with the Deeds to her property in 2010 or before.
However, the Court of Appeal did agree that an award of £75,000 to Mr King under the 1975 Act was appropriate.
The Court of Appeal were clear in their decision that the doctrine of deathbed gifts are open to abuse and could very easily be used “for unscrupulous treasure hunters to adjust their recollections”. Deathbed gift are hard to prove for this reason, which is why it is very rarely raised as an argument.