When an estate is being administered, the administrator must meet any specific bequests in the will before distributing the remainder (the ‘residue’ in legal parlance) of the estate.
However, it is by no means uncommon for the specific bequests to exceed the net value of the estate because of the estate’s liabilities – for example due to Inheritance Tax being payable.
When this occurs, the specific bequests have to be ‘abated’ (reduced pro rata) so that they can be made.
In a recent case, the three children of a deceased woman were unable to agree on the appropriate abatement of their bequests from her estate when this was insufficient for them to be fully met. The executor of the estate had to apply to the High Court for guidance.
The issue was complicated because one of the children and his wife claimed that they were owed more than £100,000 in unpaid wages etc. The other family members disputed their demands, which were, in the event, rejected by the Court, the judge recommending that the couple drop their claims.
The estate consisted mainly of properties that were mortgaged, and had a total value of approximately £290,000 net. Because of the way the will was written, the matching of the property assets and the liabilities against them was complex but was necessary in order to decide on the abatement of the bequests.
In his decision, the judge commented ominously, “It will also have to be borne in mind that this estate is by no means finalised. If the parties are not careful there is a risk that, like the litigants in Bleak House, the whole estate will be eaten up in costs.”