It has been reported that legacies left to UK charities on an annual basis are now in excess of three billion pounds (Smee and Ford). These funds are a key source of income for charities yet the importance of treading carefully in the event of a will dispute cannot be emphasised enough, particularly given the risk of reputational damage should the national press pick up on it.
The Charity Commission guidance for trustees is clear that trustees have a general duty to act in the best interests of their charity. And they have a duty to protect, and where necessary, to recover assets belonging to the charity. The decision whether or not to initiate or defend a legal action must only be made in the best interests of the charity and be balanced against the risks and consequences that any legal action could bring. The Charity Commission expects trustees to consider legal action only after they have explored and, where appropriate, ruled out any other ways of resolving the issue in dispute.
The types of legacy dispute that a charity might find themselves embroiled in include a challenge to the validity of a Will, a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“1975 Act”) or a Will construction or proprietary estoppel claim, brief details of which are set out in four consecutive blogs to be published over the next week along with associated top tips for charities for dealing with these types of disputes.
In the meantime, it should be remembered that leaving money to a charity is something that any testator is free to do and charitable giving should be respected. That being said, legacy disputes are unavoidable, and in the current climate the number of disputes of this nature are set to increase. Put against a background of an abundance of negative press attention centred not only on legacy disputes but the conduct of charities more broadly, it is crucial that careful consideration be given to how to approach these matters. Early legal advice is always recommended and will ensure the charity is best placed to see off weak claims at the earliest possible opportunity at minimum cost as well as manage any potential PR fallout.