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Disputed estates - why should charities get so much?

20 November 2023 | Philip Sewell

Occasionally we see wills where the money is to go to charities. Sometimes it is just a small amount, for example a few thousand dollars, but once in a while, there is a will under which most of the Estate goes to a charity or to several charities. I think it’s great that people support charities like this; and indeed, many charities rely on such regular bequests from estates. Many organisations have regular publicity about how to make a bequest for this reason.  

But what about when a will gives money to a charity, at the expense of the family of the deceased? This is where it gets complicated and a gift to a charity might not be as wonderful as it appears on the face of it. True, sometimes the family might not deserve quite so much – there might have been some serious dysfunction or perhaps the family abandoned the Testator and had no contact with them. How are these situations approached by the courts?

Every case is different, just like every family is different. The only time when a will-maker can safely give their estate to charities is if they have no spouse/partner and no children. This is because of the moral duty a person owes towards these members of their family. So the eccentric uncle and the unmarried aunt can often indulge their charitable instincts and give money away to non-family without the risk of a challenge being made to their choices once they’ve died. But for others, giving money to charity (especially a lot) may seem wrong and litigation will most likely follow where a will leaves a family member feeling aggrieved. If there is a court case, most charities do not actively oppose claims made by other people/family and the charities say they will accept whatever the court decides. This is a sensible course of action and avoids some unseemly fights.

If family members do make a claim, in a case where the money was left to a charity, the familiar tests still apply – did the dead person owe a moral duty to the claimant, how is the claimant situated in life, and did they do anything to disentitle themselves? It is a wide-ranging enquiry and the charity will have to sit tight and wait for the court case to finish so it is not plain sailing for the charity and it can take a long time. It can be uncertain for charities, if they are going  to receive what a will says and the process takes a long time – but without this, the charitable organisations of NZ which do so much good work, might be in a much worse position.


Phil JPG

Article by:

Philip Sewell


Client-focused solutions and speed of delivery are important features of Philip's practice. He has been in the law for over 30 years - some would say this is too long, but he considers that it gives him a breadth of experience which is more important than technical knowledge alone.

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