What happens when your relative gives your inheritance to charity?

Imagine this scenario: After months of waiting patiently for your inheritance to arrive, you find out that your mother has donated her estate to a local charity rather than to you. What are your rights? And what legal channels can you pursue to get a better outcome for yourself?

What are your rights as a beneficiary?

As a surviving family member or close relative, you may not have any legal rights to the deceased’s estate. When someone makes a will, he or she can leave their assets to whomever – or, in the case of a charity, whatever – they choose.

However, the will maker does have a moral duty, or obligation, to provide for those with whom he or she had a close or significant relationship. If they choose to exclude a partner, spouse or child from their will, there’s a pretty good chance those survivors will challenge the will.

You might be able to challenge the will based on necessity 

If you’ve been left out of a will, you can seek legal advice to first determine whether you’re entitled to challenge the will. In Victoria, for instance, only certain people are eligible to contest a will. A challenge also comes down to what the claimant needs from the estate. For example, if you’re currently unemployed and cannot adequately provide for yourself, you may need to turn to the deceased’s estate to help you financially. 

Challenging a will becomes much harder when you don’t have a financial need. In such cases, the court will often say, “You’ve got money. You’ve got an income. You’ve been doing okay for the last five years… Why do you need more?” Or, “You’ve got a spouse to support you – why should the estate pay?” The more you can show that your relative’s assets or money can help you financially, the better your position for contesting the will.

I recently had a case in which four charities benefited from a roughly $700,000 estate, while my client, the son of the deceased, received only about $5,000 in the will. Because my client was in financial need, we were able to go to mediation and successfully negotiate a very good settlement – he received one third of the estate. This was a substantial improvement on what the will dictated.

Look out for yourself by communicating ahead of time 

Of course, you may admire your family member’s wish to leave some of their money to charity. However, it’s worth having some important conversations with them while they’re still alive so they don’t give everything to charity to the detriment of their loved ones.

Obviously, open communication is the best course of action, but you need to be careful that you’re not coercing or unduly influencing your relative to make a will that goes against their wishes. If they’re considering leaving their estate to charity, try to understand where they’re coming from, then express your thoughts and make your financial and other concerns known to them. But ultimately, what’s contained in the will is the will maker’s decision.

It’s certainly common for people to leave money to charity, but the will maker should strike a balance when making a decision for their final will. They need to consider their moral duty to family members versus the needs of the charity.

This article is for general information purposes only; people should seek independent legal advice for their individual circumstances.

TOPIC: Will disputes
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Narelle Neagle

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Narelle Neagle is a Senior Associate in Maurice Blackburn's Wills and Estates Law department, based in Melbourne. Narelle graduated from Monash University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Laws and spent six years working for a boutique legal firm where she practiced in a variety of legal areas including Wills and Estates before joining Maurice Blackburn in 2011. “Wills disputes is a very interesting and challenging area of practice which allows me to act for clients seeking further provision from an Estate, as well as for Executors and beneficiaries who wish to resist a claim,” says Narelle. With ten years’ in legal practice, Narelle is highly experienced in all aspects of Will disputes including: contesting Wills, defending challenges to Wills, applications to remove executors or administrators, representing beneficiary’s interests under an estate, court authorised and statutory Will applications, probate applications and applications for letters of administration. Narelle takes pride in working closely with her clients and in making the process easy at such a stressful time. She understands the sensitivity associated with disputing a Will and always tries to resolve her client's claims as quickly and efficiently as possible while achieving the best outcome. Narelle is a skilful and effective negotiator and the vast majority of her cases are resolved without the need to go to court. “Achieving a successful legal outcome for my clients and witnessing how this can improve the lives of my clients is very rewarding. Clients feel a sense of justice and fairness at the conclusion of their matter which is also very satisfying to me. “I care about my clients and this drives me to ensure their legal rights are properly explored and their interests are protected. I'm also sensitive to the fact that many of my clients have never been involved in the legal system before and this can make the situation very hard for them, particularly when they are also grieving a loved one.” Memberships & accreditations Law Institute of Victoria member ...

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