Picture the scene of a person receiving their last rites, as physicians confirm they will pass away soon. Relatives gather around the deathbed paying their last respects. A stranger enters, rushes forward, and whispers something.
The dying person’s eyes open and they sit up and say, “Ah yes, it’s so good to see you again. Now you are back I want you to have my stamp collection … I remember how you admired it.” Then they fall back with a smile on their face, gone forever.
The people around the bed are aghast, especially the stamp-collecting nephew. Who can this person be? Are they a secret lover or a special friend from the past? The wannabe inheritors argue even though they have not seen the will.
Is the Deathbed Gift of the Stamp Collection Valid?
Yes, it can override a will if meets a narrow set of criteria. A causa mortis – or donation mortis causa – as the law calls it is a future gift on the basis on an immediately pending death. Hence the giver must die shortly afterwards from whatever made them believe they were about to die.
A deathbed gift can therefore only overrule intestacy (or a will) when the giver is in a terminal state and dies shortly afterwards. Deathbed gifts are regularly disputed, for example in the following case:
Steven Keeling and the Deathbed Gift of Ellen Exler
Steven Keeling aged 84 regularly visited his widowed older sister Ellen Exler as her death neared. Then she died without a will aged 91 as a widower without children, meaning her surviving brothers would share her estate.
The widow’s estate was worth close to a million pounds. Her only other brother Frank had dementia. Steven Keeling applied for and received letters of administration. This meant he had the power to share his sister’s estate equally between himself and his brother Frank.
However, Steven Keeling announced his sister had given him the deeds and the keys to her property after an earlier heart attack. According to him, Ellen had said she wanted him and his wife to have the house. Steven Keeling transferred to property accordingly and rented it out.
But Brother Frank’s Family Did Not Agree
The other interested parties lodged a challenge. This was because Ellen had told her carers she did not want Steven Keeling and his wife to “get their hand on my money” according to Curtis Parkinson Solicitors. She had added, according to them “that they would never get my house over my dead body”.
However, a personal assessment was the clincher that convinced the Court. This “cast serious doubt” on Ellen’s capacity to manage her own affairs. Accordingly, Judge Charles Hollander QC handed down the following judgement:
Steven Keeling gave inconsistent evidence
His late sister survived the heart attack by six months
Therefore she did not have good reason to expect imminent death
Thus any “contemplated death” did not occur and so the gift lapsed
The Essence of Judge Charles Hollander’s Decision
A deathbed gift can override a will or the rules of intestacy, only if the giver anticipated imminent death, the death occurred shortly afterwards for that reason, and the giver delivered the item or transferred ownership. These conditions did not apply in Ellen Exler’s case, and hence the brothers shared the estate.