What Downton Abbey can teach us about dying without a will

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Downton Abbey devotees and law students alike must have heaved a collective sigh of relief with the return to our screens of that compulsive lesson in legal history, cunningly disguised as a period costume drama.

Those who have not been drawn into the mystery and intrigue of the occupants of Downton Abbey, who seem to have suffered more communal misfortune than one would reasonably expect of an extended family (but no doubt a requirement for the television ratings), can stop reading now.

All others, take note for our first tutorial, of the references to the outdated (even then) but shortly to be amended laws on intestacy (Matthew failed to make a will) resulting in Lady Mary’s diminished share in the estate and looming spectre of heavy death duties.

While death at an early age is always tragic and as was observed of Matthew, he anticipated being around for many years thence, what happens on intestacy generally seems to come as something of a shock.

The rules, which determine the distribution on a person’s death of any of his or her property not governed by a valid will, are largely contained in the Administration of Estates Act 1925 (spookily coinciding roughly with the current Downton period - will Lord Grantham vote on it in the House of Lords?) and the Intestates’ Estates Act 1952.

By and large these have not kept pace with the requirements or expectations of modern family life. Back in 2009 the Law Commission published a consultation paper on various aspects of the rules, some of which have been included in the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Bill 2013 which is working its way through the House of Lords as I write.

Under the current provisions, however, in the absence of a valid will by Matthew, because his estate is likely to have been valued at more than £250,000 and he was survived by a wife and child, Lady Mary's entitlement today would still be limited. She could claim for herself a statutory legacy of £250,000 and all of Matthew's personal chattels.

The balance of Matthew's estate would then be divided in two with Lady Mary receiving a life interest (ie income only) in one half of the estate. The gorgeous George would be entitled to the other half of the estate on statutory trusts and the half of the estate in which his mother has a life interest, on her death.

This was probably not the result she and Matthew (or indeed Lord Grantham) were hoping to achieve by virtue of their collective and cumulative efforts in the previous three series. Do note, however, that in certain circumstances, the provisions of intestacy can be varied in the same way as one can vary a will.

However, in my experience what is sometimes more surprising for clients is not necessarily the effects of intestacy but the fact that despite having gone to the trouble of officially anticipating one’s demise and providing for it (as far as one's property is concerned) in a considered manner, one can find oneself inadvertently rendered intestate.

For example, if a testator divorces (or ends a civil partnership) his will takes effect as if his former spouse or civil partner had died before him, subject to express contrary intention. Similarly, marriage revokes a will unless it was drafted expressly in contemplation of the said nuptials. Of course, as a solicitor, Matthew should have known this, but perhaps he took too great a heed of the adage 'A solicitor who acts for himself has a fool for a client.'

Other topics for discussion in future tutorials might be the content of Nanny West’s employment contract (did she breach a condition that both charges should be treated equally?), the grounds for divorce in other jurisdictions or the extent to which the estate could qualify for agricultural, business or even heritage property for inheritance taxes. Who ever thought Downton was an education?

Sophie Mazzier is counsel at City private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP

This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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Angela Rayner - from teenage mum to the woman who could unify Labour

Corbyn-supporting Rayner mentioned Tony Blair in her speech. 

For those at the Labour party conference feeling pessimistic this September, Angela Rayner’s speech on education may be a rare moment of hope. 

Not only did the shadow education secretary capitalise on one of the few issues uniting the party – opposition to grammar schools – and chart a return to left-wing policies, but she did so while paying tribute to the New Labour legacy. 

Rayner grew up on a Stockport council estate, raised by a mother who could not read nor write. She was, she reminded conference, someone who left school a no-hoper. 

"I left school at 16 pregnant and with no qualifications. Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people. The direction of my life was already set.

"But something happened. Labour's Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop."

Rayner has shown complete loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer, taking two briefs in the depopulated shadow cabinet and speaking at his campaign events.

Nevertheless, as someone who practically benefited from Labour’s policies during its time in government, she is unapologetic about its legacy. She even mentioned the unmentionable, declaring: “Tony Blair talked about education, education, education. Theresa May wants segregation, segregation, segregation.”

As for Rayner's policies, a certain amount of realism underpins her rhetoric. She wants to bring back maintenance grants for low-income students, and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for those in further education. 

But she is not just offering a sop to the middle class. A new childcare taskforce will focus on early education, which she describes as “the most effective drivers of social mobility”. 

Rayner pledged to “put as much effort into expanding, technical, vocational education and meaningful apprenticeships, as we did with higher education”. She declared: "The snobbery about vocational education must end."

Tory critics have questioned the ability of a woman who left school at 16 to be an education secretary, Rayner acknowledged. “I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life,” she said. It could have sounded trite, but her speech delivered the goods. Perhaps she will soon earn her PhD in political instincts too.