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Solicitors in Westminster, London

A pit-stop at the High Court - the importance of properly drafted charitable legacies

A recent High Court judgement involving the esteemed British racing driver Barrie "Whizzo" Williams has highlighted the problems that can arise as a result of imprecise wording when leaving a charitable legacy.

Including charitable gifts or legacies in your Will is one way of benefiting a particular cause or campaign that is close to your heart. In certain circumstances, it can also result in tax benefits for your estate. However, the problem of identifying charitable beneficiaries is not uncommon and is one that can result in extra difficulties for executors, as well as the trouble and expense of seeking the Court's intervention.

The issue of unidentifiable beneficiaries as a result of imprecise wording has been laid bare in the high-profile case of Knipe v The British Racing Drivers' Motor Sport Charity and Ors [2020] EWHC 3295 (Ch). The testator, Mr Williams, left much of his £1,100,000 estate to charity, but clarification was sought from the High Court in Bristol following the discovery that some of the charitable organisations listed in his 2004 Will did not exist under the names he had given. The charities in question were the British Racing Drivers' Club Benevolent Fund, the British Racing Drivers' Club and the Cancer Research Fund.

Investigations showed that whilst the Royal Racing Drivers' Club Benevolent Fund did not exist, the British Racing Drivers Club, though not a charity itself, did administer a benevolent fund called the British Racing Drivers' Club Motor Sport Charity. It went unchallenged that Mr Williams intended to benefit the latter, with Judge Paul Matthews noting that this was a simple case of "construing the words in the Will in the context in which the deceased used them" in order to ascertain the proper construction of the Will.

The bequest to "The Cancer Research Fund" was problematic because the wording did not refer to a particular charitable organisation, but rather the general charitable purpose of cancer research. Citing ambiguity, Judge Matthews applied section 21 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 in granting the executor the power to distribute this part of the Will to such cancer research charities as he deemed fit.

Mistakes and drafting errors when making charitable legacies are not unusual. Moreover, even if a named charity does exist when making your Will, it may be the case that it changes its name, merges with another charity, or ceases to exist by the date of your death. In this case, it is important to include a fall-back clause in your Will to enable executors to select a charity with similar purposes; otherwise, you risk your wishes not being carried out as you intended.

For these reasons, we recommend that you instruct qualified professionals when preparing your Will. Not only will you avoid the more obvious drafting pitfalls, but you will also make life easier for your executors and avoid the expense of seeking the Court's intervention.

To find out more about how you can make a professionally drafted and bespoke Will, please contact one of our specialist lawyers by email, or call us on 020 7222 5381.

The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only. The contents are copyright of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP. All rights reserved.