Wills and Estates made famous by Charles Dickens

Wills and Estates made famous by Charles Dickens in his book Bleak House and the fictional case of Jarndyce V Jarndyce.

If you went to school in the UK then you will know of Charles Dickens and have probably been forced to read Great Expectations at some point. Although some of us may not have the fondest of memories of his work (and the thousand word essays you had to write about it) it is still relevant today. In Dickens book Bleak house he highlights the effects that contested Wills and Estates can have on a large group of people, something that unfortunately we still see in contentious probate to this day.

The Case of Jarndyce V Jarndyce, that the book is centred around, is influenced by a few different cases that were active at the time of his writing and some were still unresolved even after he had completed the book. It could be argued that these cases influenced the laws surrounding the inheritance procedures used in the English courts today.

The first Estate dispute that is said to have inspired the Jarndyce case in Bleak house is that of a boot blacking manufacturer named Charles Day who died in 1836 leaving a massive fortune of between £350,000 and £450,000, that’s between £37-48 million at 2017 rates. Day was successful in specifically mentioning his properties in Regents Park and Edgware, remembered for its lodge in the shape of a boot blacking bottle. Day was also clear in his wishes that £100,000 (almost £11million) of his estate be used to found a charity for the blind. Unfortunately he used 5 separate codicils along with his will to express his wishes. One of which was made invalid just before his death leading to his estate being vulnerable to be contested, which it was for several years, resulting in expensive legal costs.

In modern day, we have learnt that too many codicils attached to a will can cause serious problems when it comes to the administration of the estate. It is highly recommended that if you want to make a lot of changes to a will that you write a new one that clearly states any previous version should be regarded as invalid. Having a clear and concise will can help mitigate any confusion or incorrect interpretation which in turn will significantly reduce the chances of it being successfully contested.

The second Estate that is speculated to have influenced Dickens is William Jennens (possibly Jennings) who at the time of his death, in 1798, was considered to be the richest man in England. His estate was said to be worth more than £2million, that’s around £250million in 2017.

Jennens passed away at 97 years old, unmarried and intestate. Intestate is a term still used today to describe the estate of a deceased person who did not write a will. Although The Gentleman’s Magazine reported in 1798 that “A will was found in his coat-pocket, sealed, but not signed; [owing to] leaving his spectacles at home when he went to his solicitor for the purpose of duly executing it.”

The court initially decided that a descendant of his aunt, a man named George Curzon was the rightful heir to the fortune, unfortunately George died, unexpectedly, before the completion of the estate administration. His death meant the need for a new beneficiary and there were several potential candidates. After following a rabbit hole of potential relatives and also assessing a hundreds of claims from anyone with the last name Jennings, this included potential descents from across the Atlantic in America, the Estate was bled dry by over a centuries worth of legal expenses and remained unresolved.

Since the forming of the rules of intestacy in 1925, the order of priority in which to inherit has become much more stream line and with a much better access to birth records and marriage certificates it is now much easier to establish an entitled beneficiary and throw out bogus inheritance claims.

The final estate that is believed to have inspired Dickens is that of Richard smith who was a merchant and slave owner in the West Indies and died in 1776. In his will he attempted to leave the majority of his estate in trust for his grandchild but this was not as successful as planned and his estate ended up going through chancery proceedings until 1813. Unfortunately the chancery procedures were not the most efficient and would take into account a lot of unnecessary evidence, written pleas and fake claims in order to fulfil its promise of Merciful Justice but in turn lead to a much longer process than necessary.

To this day trusts are one of the most complicated parts of estate administration but when done correctly can be very effective. The courts and solicitors have learnt from cases like Smiths how to establish a trust in a way to create the desired result and minimise the legal complications.