How can something as big as a house be missed from someone’s estate?

According to the most recent government statistics, there are currently over 200,000 long-term empty homes in England alone. Given that ‘long term’ is defined as over six months, it’s likely that many of these buildings are empty for quite mundane reasons, perhaps because they are awaiting new tenants or a sale. However, a small number of long-term empty homes fall derelict simply because their owner has died and – whether or not they made a will – for some reason the property has not been included in their estate. In this article, Chris Ferry discusses a case that shows how easily this can happen and the problems that arise when it does.

Consider the following scenario: someone makes a will and later buys property, perhaps with a view to renting it out. Sadly, they die shortly afterwards, without having changed their will to include the property as part of their estate.

Set this scenario in the past, before compulsory land registration, and you only need a couple of other factors to be in place – such as no close next of kin and an executor who doesn’t know much about the deceased’s affairs – for the property to be missed from the estate.

This seems to be more or less what happened in the case of Dorothy Campbell, and it caused significant problems for the local authority where the house she bought was situated.

An appeal for information

We first learnt of the case through a newspaper notice appealing for information. By this time, the property had been neglected for 40 years. It had occasionally, and briefly, been occupied and its use had switched from house to business and back several times. Now it was blighting a neighbourhood that was earmarked for regeneration.

When we took the case on, our first task was to locate paperwork that proved Dorothy Campbell owned the building. At least, on this occasion, the name of the suspected owner was known to the local authority.

We then turned to her will, which had been administered shortly after her death in the 1970s. The property in question was not included in her estate.

Looking more closely at her will, it became apparent that the executors and other beneficiaries were either distant relatives or not related at all. It seemed likely that they knew nothing about the property – had they known about it, a partial intestacy would surely have arisen during the administration of the estate.

Our next task was to locate the executors of the will. One had died and the other had long since left the UK, but we traced his current address in Spain and as a result of our contact he instructed the sale of the property and re-administration of the estate.

With the help of our in-house legal team, we regularised the title to the property so that it could be sold. We also traced all the eligible beneficiaries.

It was at this point that we learnt that some of the beneficiaries already knew of the property, but had neglected to pursue their claim when the solicitor they had employed proved unable to reconstruct the paperwork necessary to sell it.

More than one house?

Even more surprisingly, one beneficiary believed that Dorothy Campbell owned yet another house which was not mentioned in her will. As a result, we are now embarking on a new investigation, with even less information to work with.

Of course, there are a number of hurdles to overcome: can this second property be fully identified, can Dorothy Campbell’s ownership be proved and has anyone moved in who can now claim possession (so-called ‘squatters’ rights’) to the home?

Nevertheless, we are hopeful that a further empty building can be brought back into use and another windfall come the way of the beneficiaries.

(For reasons of confidentiality, names and other identifying features have been altered.)


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