Two siblings have been embroiled in a battle for their inheritance left by their grandmother after their uncle refused to pay his niece and nephew the £237,000 that was owed to them.
Mark Totton was named as the Executor of Hazel Totton’s estate following her death in 2019. Hazel was Mark’s mother.
Hazel had left a quarter of her estate to her grandchildren, Hollie and Daniel. However, three years after Hazel’s death the siblings had still not received any of the £237,000 they were entitled to, with their uncle refusing to state where the money had gone. Hollie and Daniel began to worry about where their inheritance could be.
Mark, an Events Organiser from Essex, then failed to obey a court order to distribute the assets within Hazel’s estate within a certain time frame, or give a full account of his dealing with the money. The grandchildren then sued their uncle in a bid to force him to comply with Hazel’s wishes. He was ordered to attend court but did not show up.
The police were then informed but Mark still refused to give them any information in relation to where the money had gone. He was found contempt of court in August 2022 and, after being tracked down by police in September, was jailed for six weeks.
Through further pressure from the police and the courts, he finally complied with the court orders by listing exactly what was in the estate - £425,000 from the proceeds of sale of his mother’s house and £48,000 in savings and investments. He did this in a signed statement which indicated he had been advised to say nothing about the estate to avoid any further “self-incrimination”.
However, jailing him, the judge, Mr Justice Leech, rejected this argument and said that the failure to provide information about the estate amounted to “serious contumacious flouting of orders of the court”. Sentencing Mr Totton, he stated:
Both applicants are young people and have been kept out of their share of the estate for almost three years and over two years since the principal asset was sold.
With some hesitation, I reject the submission that he has never been in contempt of the order.
I find, therefore, that he remained in contempt of the order until October 6, 2022.
Although he has complied with the order to the extent he has not incriminated himself, he remains in breach of his obligations to distribute their share to the claimants.
The purpose of the original order was ultimately to ensure compliance with that obligation.
Mark Totton spoke at the hearing in September when he was brought to court after being arrested. Mr Totton said in a statement:
I put my head in the sand. I was relieved when the police turned up to get the matter resolved. I apologise to the court, there are no excuses.
The siblings’ barrister said they are now considering what steps to take in order to get their inheritance.
How Could This Have Been Avoided?
In hindsight, appointing Mark Totton as the Executor in her will was clearly a mistake by Hazel Totton. While we can never truly predict how someone will act when distributing an estate and huge sums of money, we can ensure that situations like this are kept to a minimum.
You should choose an Executor who you can trust and who is willing to take on the responsibility of the role. Typically, this may be a family member, close friend, or a professional Executor like a solicitor. Executors are people who are expected to “execute” the will. An executor has the responsibility to carry out the deceased’s wishes.
It appears in this situation that only one Executor was appointed. It is often a good idea to appoint at least two executors so they can share the responsibility and in case one of them dies before you do. You can appoint up to four executors.
You should always discuss appointing your Executors with the chosen individuals beforehand so there are no shocks when you die. You should only appoint people you trust to carry out your wishes exactly as they are in your Will. You should also consider whether your chosen Executor has the time or mental capacity to act.
How can Percy Hughes & Roberts help?
At Percy Hughes & Roberts Solicitors, we have a team of dedicated wills and probate solicitors who are ready to help you resolve your query or issue relating to this area of the law as quickly and effectively as possible.
Our probate solicitors have a wealth of experience in helping Executors administer an estate after a death, and can help you deal with any potential legal issues along the way. They can assist you in this complex area of law and ensure you have peace of mind when it comes to your loved one’s estate.