Inheritance and injustice

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From Elena Moran, chairman, Jersey Community Relations Trust.

I WRITE with reference to recent letters on Jersey’s antiquated inheritance laws. The current laws are deficient for at least three reasons.

Firstly, they do not give illegitimate children the same rights to inherit as legitimate children. Secondly, they make inadequate provision for the dependants of the deceased person. Indeed, in some cases it is impossible for a person to make proper provision for a dependant even if he or she wishes to do so.

Thirdly, the obligation to leave between one-third and two-thirds of the moveable estate to one’s children is unnecessary.

Children are often grown up and financially self-sufficient by the time their parents die. The idea that parents should be forced to leave a substantial part of their estate to non-dependent children is unduly restrictive. Parents should be entitled to leave their money elsewhere.

The absurd and unfair impact of the current laws can be demonstrated by the following example:

A man gets married in his twenties and has two sons. In his forties he divorces and meets a new partner. Together they have a daughter who is severely disabled.

The woman gives up work to care for her daughter. A few years later the man dies intestate with his main asset being a share-transfer property. The whole of the man’s estate and the family home will go to his two grown-up sons. His daughter will have no entitlement to inherit because she is illegitimate.

His partner will not inherit because the couple were not married and her dependant status gives her no rights. The inevitable result of this absurd situation is that the partner and her daughter will require States housing and will no doubt live out the rest of their days on benefits.

The situation is only marginally improved if the man leaves a will, as under the inheritance laws he is obliged to leave two-thirds of his estate to his legitimate children. Thus, the most his partner and daughter could inherit would be one-third of his estate.

In 2001 the Legislation Committee presented a report to the States on succession rights (RC3/2001). The report recommends that the current inheritance laws should be changed to allow people to dispose freely of their estate, subject to the right of the court to provide a proper sum out of the estate for the maintenance and support of the dependants of the deceased. It also recommends equality of treatment between legitimate and illegitimate children and recognises that the current inequality of treatment could be contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights. Of course, if the current laws are in fact a breach of the Convention, it may be open to an illegitimate child to claim compensation from the States equal to the sum of the lost inheritance.

It appears that changes to the current laws have been drafted.

However, the matter remains with the Legislation Advisory Panel with no timetable for getting the changes implemented.

The unfairness of the current system should be sufficient to instill a sense of urgency in States Members. Maybe the prospect of a compensation claim will eventually get these antiquated laws changed.

2 Ferme du Marais,

Rue du Pont,

St Mary.

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