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  • Randy Buckley

The Sudden Death of a Partner, Christiansen v. Jackson

Here, Karen applied to the court claiming her partner, Christopher, failed to make adequate provision for her in his will before his sudden death. The Family Protection Act 1955 allows parties to challenge the terms of a will in court. Christopher's son and heir, Mitch, told the court that the couple had an agreement in place that prevented such claims.

Karen argued that the terms of the property agreement did not reflect the couple’s intentions if their relationship ended due to death. She contended that Christopher had assured her she would be the main beneficiary of his estate, contrary to the will, which left the entire estate to Mitch. The executor maintained that the property agreement, which classified each party’s assets as their separate property, was fair and should be upheld.

Judge A.M. Manuel dismissed Karen's claim, stating, "While she may have conflated the couple's intentions for retirement with their intentions before that point, the property agreement and the will clearly outlined their financial arrangements." The judge emphasised that Karen's net worth and her independent financial standing did not justify altering the will, especially given the clear intentions expressed in the agreement.

This kind of litigation is an expensive and emotionally draining process. The net value of the deceased’s estate was approximately $2 million, and both parties spent a great deal on legal fees. Karen's costs were approximately $57,000, and the estate's costs would have been at least as much.

The judge decided that the losing party, Karen in this case, was responsible for paying both her and the estate's legal costs.

Litigation over wills and estates often highlights the importance of clear communication and proper planning. There are several areas where mediation and proactive steps could have prevented the dispute:

  1. Clear Communication of Intentions: Chris Dodd could have explicitly discussed and documented his intentions regarding his estate with both his partner and son.

  2. Regular Updates to the Will and Partnership Agreement: Regularly considering and updating these documents to reflect any changes in circumstances or intentions would have ensured that all parties had a clear understanding and likely would have prevented the litigation.

  3. Comprehensive Legal Advice: Both parties should have sought comprehensive legal advice when drafting the property agreement and their wills. This advice could have highlighted and resolved this dispute before it arose.

These discussions are often difficult, and the need to obtain independent legal advice is an obstacle for many families. The parties could have confidentially round-tabled the conversation with an experienced mediator. This open dialogue would have enabled the parties to understand everyone's intentions and expectations, preventing the dispute altogether by altering, or not altering, the will and partnership agreement.

Early neutral round-tables mitigate the risk of disputes and ensure that intentions are clearly understood and respected, thereby avoiding the emotional and financial toll of litigation.

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