News and Insights
19 July 2022
I often watch films that contain legal issues and wonder how accurate they are. I recently saw the film ‘Downton Abbey: A new era’. There were a lot of references to wills and inheritance, and it crossed my mind if anyone would be interested to know how similar matters would be resolved in Jersey.
I promise not to reveal any spoilers! However, one of the plot lines of the film, which is shown in the trailers, is that Violet Crawley (the Dowager Countess, brilliantly played by Maggie Smith) inherits a villa in the south of France from a gentleman that she had been close to in the past. The family/widow of the gentleman challenge this. If the villa was in Jersey and not in the South of France, how would the situation be different? Could a challenge be made?
Cross border estate disputes can be complicated, especially when the different countries have varying inheritance laws. Generally speaking, with inheritance law, it is the law of the location where a person is domiciled (i.e., where they consider their home to be) that governs a person’s movable assets. (People from certain EU countries can also elect which law applies to their estate). For immovable property (land and buildings, including villas!), it is the law of the country where the property is situated that applies.
Therefore, when a person dies and leaves a property located in Jersey, regardless of the domicile of the deceased, Jersey law would apply. Providing the will was validly executed under Jersey law (which is different to other jurisdictions) then the will would be very difficult to challenge. There are no forced heirship laws in relation to immovable property in Jersey, unlike movable property. The only realistic option open to the widow (in the film) would be to claim her right to dower, which would give her life enjoyment to one third of the deceased’s property, but no title to the property. Although on-screen few details are given, it seems that title to the property was in fact transferred to Violet many years before (in 1865), so the will would be irrelevant. It would be the original contract of gift that would be challengeable (which would also be very difficult) and therefore no dower claim would be available.
The situation in Jersey would therefore be similar to that in the film.
An interesting point is when the widow complains that the Crawley family are “eyeing up the furniture and curtains”. The house contents would be movable rather than immovable and therefore open to any challenges or forced heirship rules under the law governing a deceased’s estate. If the deceased were domiciled in Jersey this would include the forced heirship law of legitime.
When Violet decides to leave the Villa to her great granddaughter “Miss Sibbie”, this could again not be challenged by forced heirship laws as the Villa is immovable property.
A further element that attracted my attention was when Lady Grantham visits Isobel Crawley and her husband and asks if they would mind witnessing a new will for her. It intrigued me that they did not read it or inquire as to its contents. Were this in Jersey, providing the will was only in relation to movable property, then any two people over 18 could witness, so this scenario could work. It is not necessarily a requirement that the witness read or knows the contents of the will, however not reading the will would be unadvisable. Should there be a challenge against the will, then the witnesses could be called upon to confirm that Lady Grantham knew and approved the contents of the will and had the mental capacity to sign it. This would be very difficult if they did not know or discuss the contents with her. In the event of a challenge within the family it would also place Isobel in a difficult position as a family member, so a more impartial witness would be recommended.
Viberts’ Private Client team often see situations involving complex inheritance matters. It is always advisable to get advice before making a will to ensure that all situations are covered as much as possible.