My father was a docks policeman in Liverpool when I was growing up.
He was a very compassionate bobby whose maverick approach often did not sit well with his senior officers. He would regale us with tales over the dinner table about offering overnight shelter in his police hut to incoherently drunk foreign sailors. I recall him coming home still dripping wet after rescuing a sex worker from the Mersey on more than one occasion. He awakened in me a strong sense of injustice at the way some of the most vulnerable people in society are treated.
I studied accounting and law at Kingston and originally wanted to pursue a career in commercial property law.
My contemporaries considered property the, dare I say it, ‘sexy’ area of the law. My mind was changed by a truly inspirational training principal, now sadly deceased, who convinced me that I had a particularly keen eye for detail, diligence and that these attributes were best directed in a trusts and estates setting. My accounting degree helped. I was working towards STEP qualification when the financial crash happened. I knew then I had made the right choice in specialising in wills, trusts and estates.
Dealing with bereaved family members and advising on the tax consequences of a death can be extremely challenging.
People react very differently and often in unexpected ways to a bereavement. As a young solicitor, I recall a hospital visit to take instructions for a deathbed will. A careful blend of empathy and professionalism when dealing with deeply personal, often unsettling circumstances is a skill. Putting clients at ease helps obtain the correct and fullest information from them.
Remarkably, despite repeated national campaigns, people still believe their whole estate will automatically pass to their spouse or cohabiting partner should they die.
And many people believe there is a formal legal concept of common-law marriage and that they have the same or similar rights as a married couple. I deal with a lot of wealthy families, many of them with complicated family structures. People are often emboldened to make ambitious claims when no will exists, or worse, where there is a home-made or off-the-shelf will. Increasingly, we are seeing a simplistic ‘go compare’ price comparison approach to will-writing, the result of which is costly litigation, fractured family relationships and terrible unnecessary distress.
I act for many farming families and agricultural estates where succession and tax planning is important to ensure the continuation of a viable business.
One of the most challenging areas I advise on is the fair division of the farming estate, particularly where some of the children are not involved in farming and do not wish to succeed to the farming business. I have seen a rise in proprietary estoppel claims concerning farms and land owners. Non-farming family members may be disappointed with the contents of the will and I am seeing more who are willing to litigate now. Managing parties’ expectations from the outset is crucial and getting the will right in the first place is key. Dealing with warring siblings is always a challenge and we walk that tightrope very carefully. Tact and diplomacy are invaluable.
Being appointed head of the wills, trusts and estates department at Cullimore Dutton was my most memorable career highlight.
I lead a team of 10, which is one of the largest private client teams in Chester. Another highlight some years ago involved a complex application to vary a long-established family trust, which involved multiple beneficiaries and different jurisdictions. A drafting error in the original trust deed would have resulted in a very unfair scenario for a certain class of beneficiary, if a particular series of highly unlikely events were to happen. Unlikely events notwithstanding, we proceeded to vary and the case was heard in the High Court. An order was obtained to the satisfaction of all parties and the trust deed varied accordingly. Around a year after the case was resolved, that series of remote events did indeed occur. It was a highly technical case involving very significant sums of money.
The review of inheritance tax and the complexities of the current system is long overdue.
The OTS report will hopefully kick-start that process when published. The recent introduction of the residence nil rate band had exacerbated the problem. It is becoming more common for members of the public to apply for probate themselves and this will only increase with the online probate application procedure.
Gillian Knowles is head of wills, trusts and estates at Cullimore Dutton, Chester