A loved one’s passing is a difficult time for all involved. This can be made more difficult by chattel disputes. A chattel is defined as ‘an item of property other than freehold land.’  This includes items such as paintings, jewellery etc. Chattel disputes happen when two or more family members want the same item.

This blog will look at how such disputes arise, how they can be resolved and how to avoid them in the first place.

How can they arise?

There are several reasons why a chattel dispute can occur. One can be due to the wording or construction of the Will. For example, it may not be clear what the deceased wanted, or they may use general umbrella terms, such as my jewellery, rather than exact defined items. Another may be that the chattel may no longer be in the possession of the deceased at the time of death. In such situations, the gift fails.

The most common example is when the chattel is mentioned in a letter of wishes. A letter of wishes is a document created to accompany a Will; it provides guidance on how the deceased would like their estate administered. The main difference between this is that, unlike a Will, letters of wishes are not legally binding. Because of this, an executor may deviate from the wish.

How can a Chattel dispute be resolved?

If ownership cannot be determined there are several ways a dispute can be settled. For instance, the chattel in question could be sold and the sale proceeds split between those in dispute. Alternatively, one party may wish to buy out the other’s interest, in doing so taking full ownership of the chattel.

Another option would be to divide the chattels in dispute into equal portions. This was seen in the case of Butler v Butler [2016]. Here a collection of porcelain pots where being disputed, it was held that the collection had never been intended to remain as a set, as such they were divided into equal portions with each party taking it in turn to select which pot they wanted.

It is important to note that Chattel disputes almost always settle. This is because it is common for the value of the chattel to be less than the legal costs of arguing over ownership.

How can you avoid such disputes?

The easiest way to avoid disputes is through proper and thorough instructions in either the Will or the letter of wishes.

A Will is the stronger of the two as it is legally binding and unlike a letter of wishes must be adhered to. This can be useful as the deceased can outline their exact wishes including who should receive certain chattels. Furthermore, if there are ongoing family feuds or arguments a Will is a safer option as any gifts must be administered as such.  Which in turn may help to reduce arguing.

As mentioned previously letters of wishes are not legally binding. Therefore, if they are used it is important that in the letter it is made clear to any executor that the wishes within should only be deviated from with very good reason.

How can Attwells help?

If you are in a chattel dispute, we can help. We understand that the chattel is often more about the sentimental value than the financial. We can look at the necessary documents to see whether you have a right or have ownership of the chattel, if there is no definitive answer we can assist you in coming to a compromise.

Our Contentious Probate team is led by Edward Powell, a senior Solicitor at the firm who is overseen by William Oakes, head of litigation and a partner at the firm.

Further to this, we can assist you in the creation or amendment of your Will or letters of wishes to ensure that the gifts you want to leave go to the people you want.

Our Wills & Estate team is led by Laura Harrington-Rutterford the head of Private Client and partner at the firm.

We would always recommend seeking legal advice.

Our blogs and articles are correct at the time of writing.
These have been created for marketing purposes only and should not be considered as legal advice.
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