Dispute Resolution and Litigation

The Estate of Michael Gambon - less 'expecto patronum' and more 'expecto a claim'?

Just because someone is famous it does not necessarily mean they have their affairs in order when they die. It is quite common to hear of celebrities who have passed and whose death has raised various questions into the administration of their estate, and could potentially lead to disputes.

One such case is the estate of Sir Michael Gambon who died in September 2023. Gambon was married to his wife, Lady Anne Gambon, for 61 years until his death in 2023. They had one son, Fergus. In 2002, Gambon entered into a long term relationship with a set designer, Philippa Hart. Philippa and Sir Michael had two children together, Tom and William. From what can be determined by the various newspaper articles following his death, it is understood that Gambon split his time between his wife and his partner, Philippa, for the better part of two decades.

Even though the actor shared his time equally between his two families, the same was not reflected in his Will, which was written in 2016. Various news articles noted this week, that the actor seems to have left the majority of his approximately £1.5 million estate to his wife and their son, Fergus, in substitution. His long-term partner, Philippa, appears to have been left nothing under the terms of his Will and his two sons with Philippa only receiving a gift of £10,000 each and a trophy. It’s worth noting that there may have been separate trust arrangements, or assets which passed by survivorship. It was once reported that Gambon and his partner owned a property in London.

How does the law apply?

In England and Wales, there is the concept of testamentary freedom which is the principle that an individual can leave their estate to whoever they choose in their Will. There is no specific requirement for them to leave anything to a particular family member, as is seen in many other jurisdictions around the world. Even though there is the concept of testamentary freedom, this does not mean that the estate is protected against various challenges brought against it.

It might be a consideration for Philippa to consider bringing a claim against Gambon’s estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (‘the Inheritance Act’). She could have standing given that she had been a cohabitee with the deceased for at least two years prior to his death (there might be a difficulty to consider given that she and the testator did not live together permanently prior to the testator’s death).

It is also worth noting that a further complication could be the fact that Michael was already married at the time of his death and that he in effect had two separate families.

To claim as a cohabitee, she must be able to prove they were living as a husband and wife would have been, albeit without a formal marriage. The complication might be that Gambon was living as husband and wife with both his lawful wife, Anne, and his partner, Philippa.

Under English matrimonial law an individual cannot be married to two persons at the same time. Whether this would be relevant for any claim where a person was living as man and wife, whilst married to another person would be a possible question for the court to answer. In any such claim it could be whether under the terms of the Inheritance Act, an individual could only live as man and wife with one other person rather than two, as Gambon did.

If it was determined that Philippa was not in a strong enough position to bring a claim against Gambon’s estate, it could be open that she could pursue a claim on behalf of her sons, Tom and William, as they were both under 18 at the time of the actor’s death. So it could be presumed that both Tom and William were financially dependent to a certain degree on their father. It would be for a court to decide whether the £10,000 they each received and the trophy they received was sufficient financial provision, and, if it wasn’t, whether a claim should proceed. This of course would be subject to whether there were alternative arrangements such as trusts, which fall outside of the will.

Concluding Comments

It is important to note that a person’s estate can be challenged even where a testator’s clear intention is evident in the Will. It is important that any executor is aware of the risks when administering the estate in accordance with the law and that the beneficiaries reserve the right to bring any such claim within the six month period after the grant of representation has been issued.

It is equally important to note that the beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries are also open to making a claim against an individual’s estate even where they have received a level of inheritance, but they did not consider it reasonable and would be seeking to advance that opinion on a court.

Nevertheless, whether you are in a position of intending to make a claim against a person’s estate, or defending such a claim, it is important to have the advice of an experienced contentious probate solicitor, so that you can be rest assured that you are receiving the correct advice depending on your circumstances.

To speak to someone in our Contentious Wills and Probate team, please email info@brethertons.co.uk or phone 01295 270999 (Banbury Office), 01869 252161 (Bicester Office), or 01788 579579 (Rugby Office).

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David Richards
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